Running against the dynasties: How Miami’s ‘other’ political candidates are playing to win

The race to win Miami’s District 3 commission seat has become a clash of political dynasties. But there are four ‘other’

Alfie Leon wants Miami to know his name, and he’s spent nearly a year pounding pavement and knocking on doors to make it happen.

There are times when the work has paid off and the voters who answer the doorbell remember that he’s the guy running to be their city commissioner on Nov. 7. And then there are the times they see his last name embroidered on the chest of his polo shirt and he knows that look of acknowledgment has nothing to do with politics.

“This happens,” Leon says, smirking, as a confused homeowner heads over to chat. “They think I’m from Leon Medical Centers.”

Having a recognizable name is a bonus this year in the crowded race to win Miami’s District 3 commission seat. It’s just that Medicare service professional isn’t what Leon is going for. His opponents, meanwhile, have last names like Regalado, Barreiro, and Carollo — political dynasties with little need for introductions.

That’s a huge advantage in an off-year election, and it’s leaving candidates outside the city’s political establishment with automatic fundraising and name-recognition handicaps. But lacking the family name is a veritable badge of honor to the four “other” candidates. If anything, they’re hoping to use their opponents’ names against them.

“They want to trade on that name,” Leon, 32, said during an afternoon of driving around in a rental car stuffed with yard signs and knocking on the doors of Miami’s most dependable voters. “The only person I’m beholden to is my neighbor, not someone who gave me a donation, or someone my dad or husband worked for.”

I am not the son of a politician.

Alfonso “Alfie” Leon

running-against-the-dynasties-how-miamis-other-political-candidates-are-playing-to-win photo 1 Miami Commission candidate Alfie Leon stopped to talk with residents and hand out campaign materials Oct. 3 as he walked through Shenandoah and The Roads. CARL JUSTE

Leon isn’t exactly the definition of an outsider or underdog. He’s a former office aide to outgoing District 3 Commissioner Frank Carollo, is working with progressive political consultant Christian Ulvert and has had campaign help from Airbnb’s head of Florida public policy (a long-time personal friend). But in this election, Carollo’s brother, former Mayor Joe Carollo, is also on the ballot, as is Zoraida Barreiro, the wife of County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, and Tomás N. “Tommy” Regalado, the son of the outgoing mayor.

“There are people I’ve talked to who don’t know that the Tomás Regalado who’s running is not the mayor,” Leon says. At one house, after handing off campaign material to a shirtless man with a yappy chihuahua, he doubles back to make sure the man knows: “Yo no soy hijo de politicano.”

I am not the son of a politician.

running-against-the-dynasties-how-miamis-other-political-candidates-are-playing-to-win photo 2 Alex Dominguez, candidate for Miami Commissioner in District 3, seen four years ago during his first run for the seat against Frank Carollo. Now he’s running against Frank’s older brother, Joe. David Santiago El Nuevo Herald

Alex Dominguez, a candidate taking a second stab at the seat after running four years ago against Frank Carollo, has made “nepotism” a part of his aggressive campaign by creating an “End the Dynasties” meme for social media. José Suárez, communications director for the 25,000-member Service Employees International Union, launched his campaign in April as an alternative to “Miami’s dynastic political families.”

Will it work? Like a parent patting a child on the head, former mayor Joe Carollo says “I wish them all well.”

running-against-the-dynasties-how-miamis-other-political-candidates-are-playing-to-win photo 3 Joe Carollo Roberto Koltun

I wish them all well.

Joe Carollo

Still, the underdogs in the race can be comforted that they’re humping for a relatively small number of votes, making the campaign manageable. In 2013, out of nearly 28,000 voters, fewer than 4,700 people voted in the race for District 3 commissioner. There’s also this: During the last city election, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff’s wife was beat soundly in a race for his seat by a then-unknown and under-funded Ken Russell, so the last shot at political inheritance didn’t go so well.

Plus, thanks to Hurricane Irma, their anti-establishment message is coming at a time when massive piles of downed tree branches still cover streets in Shenandoah, Coral Way and Little Havana, forcing drivers into low-speed games of chicken and getting under voters’ skin. There’s also the mess on Flagler Street, where a three-mile FDOT project to overhaul the roadway has lasted for 18 months and obliterated business along the strip.

“Our roads are ruined. Flagler is ruined. The business owners are suffering,” candidate Miguel Soliman, a member of a state advisory group on the street project, says in a lightly viewed YouTube video. “They’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars. We’ve lost all our small businesses on Flagler.”

Still, all of the candidates not named Regalado, Barreiro or Carollo are out-manned. Combined, those three have easily raised more than $700,000, about five times what the other candidates have raised. The underdogs also lack the resources of their big-name competitors, who showed up to the powerless Robert King High Towers armed with goodies after the hurricane.

Barreiro, proving the power of quasi-incumbency, has distributed a mailer addressed to voters as an important message from County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. Inside — surprise! — it’s a gushing letter about his wife.

“You’re fighting their system. It’s hard,” Dominguez said Wednesday afternoon while glad-handing voters at Robert King High.

running-against-the-dynasties-how-miamis-other-political-candidates-are-playing-to-win photo 4 José Suárez, left, talks with supporter Redelio Conesa Wednesday morning. David Smiley

Dominguez, who drew 1,000 votes in 2013 while running head-to-head against Frank Carollo, hopes social media and door-knocking will act as the great equalizer. Suárez, on the other hand, believes a small volunteer army from his union and a targeted message to overlooked and disenfranchised voters will combine with voter frustration to push him into a runoff. To a man, they’re all canvassing neighborhoods, hoping that enough people will remember their names on election day.

“I can’t tell you how many doors I’ve knocked where people were not going to vote. They’re tired of the same old, same old,” Suárez said. “The same way people are tired of the Bushes and Clintons, they’re tired of the Barreiros, Regalados and Carollos.”

This article has been updated to correct information about help Alfie Leon has received on his campaign. He is long-time friends with the head of Florida public policy for Airbnb.

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