Do Republican ties hurt candidates in liberal Miami Beach? Election will be a test

Miami Beach City Commission candidate David Suarez has a history of supporting Republican politicians.

A year ago, according to campaign-finance data, Suarez gave $2,900 to the U.S. Senate campaign of Blake Masters, a former Colorado candidate who was described by Politico as a “hard-line nationalist” and promoted a theory that Democrats were encouraging immigration to “change the demographics of this country.”

In 2020, he gave $25,000 to a slew of Republican candidates and PACs, including more than $100 to the campaign of Laura Loomer, a far-right Florida congressional hopeful. In 2018, records show, Suarez gave $5,000 to a political committee supporting the gubernatorial campaign of Ron DeSantis. And in 2016, he gave more than $1,000 to groups supporting Donald Trump.

Do Miami Beach voters care?

As Suarez and several other candidates with Republican ties seek office in a city known for its liberal leanings, the Nov. 7 election may help provide answers.

Miami Beach elections are nonpartisan. Typically, candidates are muted about their party affiliations, focusing instead on local issues as they seek to appeal to a broad swath of voters. But in a city seen as a haven for the gay community where less than a quarter of registered voters are Republicans — and as DeSantis’ culture-war battles continue to rock institutions across the state — party ties could help voters pick between candidates with similar local priorities.

“I think a lot of us chose to make Miami Beach our home because it historically has been an open-minded and welcoming place in recent decades,” said commission candidate Tanya Katzoff Bhatt, a registered Democrat. “It’s important that we don’t let others who don’t share our values change what makes our city special.”

There are just four registered Democrats among 10 total candidates for mayor and three commission seats, according to public records: mayoral candidates Mike Grieco and Michael Gongora and commission candidates Mitch Novick and Katzoff Bhatt. Mayoral candidate Bill Roedy is registered with the Independent Party.

The remaining five candidates have no party affiliation and were previously registered as Republicans before switching to NPA within the past decade, records show.

None of the 10 candidates are incumbents. Six are seeking political office for the first time.

READ MORE: The field is set for a crucial Miami Beach election. Here are the candidates

Suarez, a skincare company marketing director and activist against short-term rentals, did not respond to an interview request for this story. Records show he switched his Republican registration to the Independent Party in 2021, then no party last year.

David Suarez
David Suarez

His political consultant, David Custin, shared details of campaign contributions Suarez has made to several Miami Beach Democrats, including City Commissioners Laura Dominguez, David Richardson and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, as well as donations he made this year and last year to LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.

“We hope you’ll balance your reporting of his contribution history with this information,” Custin said in an email.

David Geller, the president of the Miami Beach Democratic Club, said it’s common for local candidates with conservative bents to become non-party affiliated to try to boost their chances. Among more than 47,000 Miami Beach voters, 37% are Democrats, 24% are Republicans and 39% are NPAs or registered with minor parties, according to the latest available data.

“We are concerned with the number of NPA candidates who are running for mayor and commission telling voters they are moderates or ‘lean Democrat’ in order to win over voters, when public records and their own social media suggest different,” Geller said.

Account highlights Republican ties

Suarez’s contribution to DeSantis’ PAC recently surfaced on an anonymous social media account, “No MAGA Takeover in Miami Beach,” that has sought to expose Miami Beach candidates’ ties to the political right.

A post on Facebook last month launching the account suggested those ties are especially relevant now, as the Republican-controlled Legislature has sought to strip away power from cities.

“It matters because DeSantis and [other Republicans] have weakened our city with preemption laws that have given big developers enormous power to demolish our historic city,” the post said. “They have attacked local LGBTQ-owned businesses which are an enormous part of our tourist economy. And they have attacked public education and opened the floodgates to censorship and book bans.”

Few candidates have been spared from the account’s sleuthing and biting commentary.

Joe Magazine, a finance professional who has served on the city’s Planning Board, was featured for several social media posts he made in 2016.

One day after a man shot and killed five police officers in Dallas during a protest against the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, Magazine took to Facebook to write that he was “sick of hearing a bunch of f---ing morons talk about whose lives matter.”

“To me, my family’s lives matter, my life matters,” Magazine wrote. “And if anyone decides to try and jeopardize that, they’ll see how little their life matters to me.”

In an interview this week, Magazine said the post was “worded poorly,” but that it was an emotional reaction to “two extremes coming together, bestowing violence upon our country.”

Joe Magazine
Joe Magazine

The day after Trump was elected president, Magazine wrote on Facebook that he has “supported Trump for over a year and a half,” attaching a photo of himself wearing a “Trump 2016” hat.

Magazine, who dropped his party affiliation in February 2022, said he sees himself as a moderate and no longer supports Trump. He said he voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

“My main desire was to bring the country together and it’s clear that didn’t happen during his administration,” Magazine said of Trump, noting that he is pro-choice and supports the LGBTQ community. “I categorically reject extremism on either side.”

The “No MAGA Takeover” account has also called out Magazine’s opponent, art curator Marcella Novela, for donating $1,000 last June to the campaign of Republican State Rep. Fabian Basabe and $1,000 last August to a political committee that backs DeSantis.

Novela’s political consultant, Eric Johnson, said Novela was a social friend of Basabe before he entered local politics and was “shocked by how he’s behaved in office and how he’s voted.” Basabe came under fire last year for voting in lockstep with DeSantis despite campaigning as a social moderate, and faced allegations of sexual harassment by two staffers, which he has denied.

Novela has since donated $1,000 to the campaign of Joe Saunders, a Democrat running against Basabe.

As for the DeSantis donation, Johnson said Novela made it during a Miami Beach fundraiser hosted by the governor’s wife, Casey. “She was probably not as politically active as she certainly is now,” Johnson said. “She certainly would not support DeSantis in the future.”

Novela, a former Republican who has had no party affiliation since 2017, acknowledged the donations in a recent comment on Instagram, saying Basabe and DeSantis “turned out to be horrible liars and traitors.”

“Not moderate at all!!” she wrote.

Marcella Novela
Marcella Novela

Will local priorities take precedent?

The November election may be an indicator of where Miami Beach residents’ priorities lie — and whether South Florida’s tourist hub is following countywide political shifts to the right.

City officials, including Democratic Mayor Dan Gelber, have pressed ahead in recent years on a host of controversial tough-on-crime policies in response to constituent demands, even when they have drawn criticism from progressives. At a meeting last week, commissioners voted on first reading to subject homeless people to arrest if they refuse a shelter bed, despite advocates cautioning against it.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber (left), former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez (center) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (right), at the Miami Beach Convention Center on April 8, 2020, discuss the Army Corps’ building of a coronavirus field hospital inside the facility.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber (left), former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez (center) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (right), at the Miami Beach Convention Center on April 8, 2020, discuss the Army Corps’ building of a coronavirus field hospital inside the facility.

The question of Miami Beach’s role in state and national battles has come up repeatedly as elected officials have sought to condemn DeSantis initiatives. Steven Meiner, a commissioner who is running for mayor, has refused to support such resolutions, saying they aren’t directly relevant to the city. That has opened him up to criticism from colleagues who say it’s important to take a stance.

“They’re important issues, but they’re not for Miami Beach,” Meiner said at a recent candidate forum.

Miami Beach Commissioner Steven Meiner is one of four candidates for mayor.
Miami Beach Commissioner Steven Meiner is one of four candidates for mayor.

READ MORE: Who will be the next mayor of Miami Beach? Four hopefuls square off at first forum

Andres Asion, a real estate broker facing off against Katzoff Bhatt for City Commission, called recent attacks about candidates’ past party allegiances “ridiculous.”

“None of those topics are relevant to the fact that, when somebody picks up the phone, they know that I’m a get-it-done guy for the past 25 years of my life,” Asion said.

The “No MAGA Takeover” account has featured a February 2021 Instagram post in which Asion shared a photo of himself with DeSantis, which has since been deleted.

“With the best Governor in the country,” Asion wrote. “Thank you for making Florida the best state to live!! Keep doing what your [sic] doing!!”

Asion, who has had no party affiliation for the past decade, said the post was taken out of context. It referred only to DeSantis lifting COVID restrictions and opening Florida to business ahead of other states, he said, and wasn’t meant as a comment on the governor’s other policies.

Asion said he is pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ, in part because he has a brother who is gay. He has supported Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in 2016, and Democratic candidates like Matt Haggman, a former Herald reporter who ran unsuccessfully for Congress, in 2018. And he said he has donated thousands of dollars to SAVE, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Andres Asion
Andres Asion

In a country divided between “people who are hard left and people who are hard right,” Asion said, “I don’t fit in any of those two boxes.”

“Everything doesn’t have to be Republican or Democrat,” he said. “You can live in the middle.”