2020 Local Runoff Madness

 The charge is on for November, with many local races at stake after primary elections last week resulted in razor-thin victories and multiple runoffs, including four Miami-Dade County Commission seats and the mayoral contest.

Outgoing House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee led the ballot count in a crowded race for the District 9 commission seat with 37% of the vote, while his opponent Elvis Maldonado followed with 23%, securing the runoff spot. Attorney and community activist Marlon Hill was edged out by only 274 votes, according to the final tally.

“Statistically, we knew the probability of a two-person runoff was super high,” said McGhee, who’s been endorsed by the seat’s previous tenant, Dennis Moss. “But, there’s always a possibility of knowing that anything can happen.” What also happened is that 3,172 mail-in ballots arrived after the Aug. 18, 7 p.m. deadline, according to county elections department officials. Another several hundred ballots remain uncured due to signature issues that couldn’t be validated in time, leaving us to wonder how some of these races may have turned out differently had all the ballots been counted. Florida statute prohibits votes by mail from being tallied past the 7 p.m. cutoff, much to the distress of those on the losing end.

“The most important part of our democracy is to ensure that every vote counts,” said Hill. “If those vote-by-mail ballots are for others, so be it. If they are for me, so be it. But we all need to safeguard the voting rights of our residents from any delay from a breakdown in our current process.”

Legal challenges to the statute at this late date have little chance of changing outcomes. That means the McGhee v. Maldonado matchup is on. Veteran public opinion researcher and political analyst Fernand Amandi asserts that the rise of Hispanics in the district presents an equal opportunity for each of the candidates to build multiethnic coalitions to win. “This district was not necessarily drawn for a Black candidate to win every time,” said Amandi. “Incumbency made it difficult for Dennis Moss to lose, but we should not expect that trend to continue.” McGhee agrees that race was not the determinant factor in the primary. “[Residents of District 9] did not see race at all,” said McGhee. “What they saw was whether or not a candidate, who they had to choose from, whether or not they had demonstrated the ability to carry an agenda that could benefit District 9.” He also concurs that victory will depend on relationships with residents and their overall trust for the candidate of their choosing.

The District 3 race was more of a blowout than a squeaker, with Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon falling less than a percentage point away from avoiding a runoff. His runoff opponent, Haitian community activist Gepsie Metellus, is undeterred. “I intend to work like hell. I know many say this is a David versus Goliath matchup, but I have the support, the preparation, the fortitude, the relationships and all the important elements needed to go forward and fight for the ideas and the vision to transform this community. I believe I have a path to victory and I’m going to surprise people,” affirmed Metellus. “This is the year for women in politics. We are showing up and proving that we have always been capable and prepared to be in this arena, so in this race let the best woman win.”

“We’re still really excited about the overwhelming amount of support we were given, with so many people in the race,” said Keon Hardemon. “We will continue to run hard, we call it running scared, to ensure that I am the next District 3 commissioner.”

Amandi believes the odds are against Metellus this go-around, but says he fully expects District 7 candidate Cindy Lerner and District 5 candidate Eileen Higgins to beat their Republican opponents in these technically nonpartisan races.

“I’ve always said this idea that there are no partisan races is a fantasy,” said Amandi. “Partisan voter turnout in November will have an enormous impact on down-ballot races like these.”

Partisan politics are also expected to rule the runoff between mayoral candidates Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat, and Republican Esteban Bovo, both county commissioners. The primary night surprise was the failure of Alex Penelas to secure a runoff spot. There is speculation that the well-financed former mayor’s refusal to engage in partisan politics may have contributed to his elimination.

“It may be a little too early to say why this happened … but he didn’t read the room very well,” said Amandi. “In the most politically polarized moment in history, that strategy was not a pathway to victory.”

Amandi predicts Levine Cava will be Miami-Dade’s first female mayor, with help from Joe Biden’s coattails.

A contest void of partisan politics ended up being more competitive than some predicted. After a nail-biter of a night, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III defeated Sybrina Fulton, mother of the late Trayvon Martin, by less than one percent of the vote in District 1.

Was that a surprise? “Yes and no – surprising because it upended conventional wisdom. Not surprising in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests because Sybrina is a touchstone for Black Lives Matter,” said Amandi. “Her strong showing should make candidates sit up and take notice that people like her can beat established candidates. Establishment candidates, like Oliver Gilbert, are not invulnerable.”

Fulton received endorsements from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.

Gilbert was endorsed by outgoing District 1 commissioner Barbara Jordan and had this to say about his primary night win: “We were very methodical about the conversation that we had with the residents and voters of the district about the type of county we want to live in and the district we want to have.”

Establishment candidate Katherine Fernandez Rundle continued her winning streak, beating opponent Melba Pearson with 62% of the vote to continue her 27-year hold on the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s office.

Amandi believes Pearson’s future remains bright. “I always encourage first-time candidates not to give up,” he said. “Melba Pearson is an experienced, talented, refreshing voice. If Kathy doesn’t run again, having run for the seat before would give [Pearson] an advantage.”

In the meantime, all eyes are on November and beyond. “We need local government to be proactive to address our most pressing issues, least of them being the pandemic because once it goes away all the old issues will remain. I’m always hopeful, but the normative culture of county hall sometimes makes change-oriented reformers go along to get along with the only goal of getting reelected,” said Amandi. “We’ve seen a lot of good people run for all the wrong reasons, demur, or go to the dark side. Nonetheless, anytime you have wholesale turnover, such as what we’ll see in November, there is an expectation that things will be different.”

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