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Miami Beach commission race fired up by political potshots

BY DAVID SMILEY, dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

Old drunken driving arrests.

Potshots at a ``slumlord boyfriend.''

Allegations of fraud and hypocrisy.

In the days leading up to Tuesday's elections, Miami Beach voters have faced an avalanche of attack ads worthy of a supermarket tabloid -- with garish fliers depicting candidates as shadowy villains and B-movie monsters.

gongora Candidate Michael Góngora (right) describes the ads as ``Hialeah-style politics'' coming to Miami Beach.

But Hialeah's elections have been relatively subdued. So have races in the city of Miami, where politics have never been for the mild-mannered or faint of heart.

In a county known for its bruising election battles, where four mayoral seats are up for grabs Tuesday, it is the race for one commission seat on the Million Dollar Sandbar that has stirred up the most acrimony.

Góngora, Alex Fernandez and Gabrielle Redfern are running to replace outgoing Miami Beach Commissioner Victor Diaz Jr. -- but the three-way race has largely boiled down to a fight between Góngora and Fernandez.

redfernRedfern (right) said the nastiness has made her look good by comparison.

``We love the Halloween one,'' she said, referring to an ad showing Góngora towering over the city like Godzilla as screaming citizens run from his grinning image.

``My 5-year-old wants to put that up on our door, she was so scared by it.''

Redfern, a 47-year-old condo property manager who has spent much of the campaign season tending to a daughter recently hospitalized with Crohn's disease, has raised less than $10,000. Fernandez has a war chest of $122,000 and Góngora $98,000.

Góngora is a 39-year-old attorney who in 2006 was elected to a one-year stint on the commission. Fernandez is a 23-year-old political newcomer who briefly served as an aide to Miami Beach Mayor Mattie Herrera Bower.

The race has garnered attention not only for its vitriol, but for being something of a political benchmark: Both Fernandez and Góngora are gay, and their contest is the first time two openly gay candidates have faced off in the city, say activists.

``This is a first in the city of Miami Beach,'' said Herb Sosa, president of the Unity Coalition, a gay-rights organization, which has endorsed Góngora and Group 2 candidate Sherry Roberts, who is a lesbian. ``Even beyond that, without a doubt, it's the largest number of gay candidates period'' in the county's history.

But not everyone sees the match-up as a watershed moment.

``I've not heard that at all,'' said Ray Breslin, a Miami Beach activist who is also gay, noting the Beach is a progressive community.

Instead, most of the political buzz has been about the mushrooming number of mailers and TV commercials.

Góngora and a third-party group have insinuated Fernandez's campaign has been funded by his partner of more than three years, Robert J. Wolfarth, the son of a local developer. One ad from a group called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility calls Wolfarth a ``slumlord boyfriend.''

fernandez Fernandez (right) has said his $104,000 personal loan to his warchest came from his own bank account, bolstered from a now-defunct business that marketed the real-estate holdings of a development company of which the senior Wolfarth is a partner.

He has taken to carrying around his bank statements to neighborhood forums and endorsement meetings.

Fernandez said the allegation has only been made because he is gay.

``I know that if I were with a woman, it would have been very unlikely that, in that case, my spouse would have been attacked,'' he said.

Góngora said the issue has nothing to do with Fernandez's sexuality.

The human rights group SAVE Dade declined to make an endorsement in the Group 3 contest, but took a close look at the race.

``We were making sure there were no homophobic overtones to any of the literature and we decided there wasn't,'' said C.J. Ortuño, director of SAVE Dade.

Góngora and Fernandez have both denounced the negative campaigning.

Góngora lost a reelection bid in 2007 by 33 votes, fending off the same criticisms behing rehashed this year.

He was arrested twice for driving under the influence during the mid-1990s, although one of those charges was eventually downgraded. The resisting arrest charge was dismissed.

One ad that includes an old Góngora mugshot notes he voted against a measure that banned his law firm, Becker & Poliakoff, from lobbying the city while he sat on the dais. His firm appealed the city's decision in circuit court, though the ad said he ``sued the city.''

``I made some perhaps bad votes in the past but they didn't come from a bad place,'' Góngora said at a Collins Park forum. ``I'm not a lobbyist.''

And in a series of mailers attacking his driving record, Góngora has been pictured driving increasingly posh wheels: first a clunker, then a sports car, and finally a NASCAR-style race car.

Góngora brushes off the driving transgressions as mistakes made 15 years ago.

Fernandez in turn has had to defend his own driving record.

He was cited with driving without insurance and a speeding citation for doing 83 in a 55-mph zone last year.

A Góngora ad shows Fernandez with the word ``Hypocrite'' pasted over his mouth.

Góngora's campaign has also made hay of other details found in Fernandez's personnel file covering his three-month stint as a Bower aide, including contract and indebtedness lawsuits that turned up in a city background search.

However, on Friday, Human Resources Director Ramiro Inguanzo sent Fernandez a letter that states the lawsuits found in the background check were for other people also sharing his given name, Alejandro J. Fernandez -- including a divorce proceeding that would have been filed when the candidate was a teenager.

Former Mayor Neisen Kasdin said Friday that the third-party groups have helped fuel the nastiness -- but said the Beach has seen its own share of vicious campaigning over the years.

``In many respects,'' he said, ``this is par for the course in Miami Beach politics.''

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