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In South Florida, the business of government looks more and more like the business of politics


The new operatives roaming the halls of local South Florida governments come from political campaigns and public-relations firms, not from high-powered law firms that usually supply big-name lobbyists. In some cases, the consultants aren't lobbyists at all. They don't write legislation. They care less about how elected officials will vote and more about what the public will think.

The shift might appear subtle. But appealing to public opinion –- more like an advertising firm launching a product or a political campaign promoting a candidate –- has become big business in the competitive world of Miami public relations.

Consider the most significant proposals that have come recently before local governments: David Beckham's Major League Soccer stadium. The Miami Dolphins' renovations to Sun Life Stadium. The Miami Beach Convention Center. Miami-Dade County's new sewer pipes. Uber's and Lyft's push to legalize rides-for-hire.

All have involved deep-pocketed companies hiring firms such as Schwartz Media Strategies, Balsera Communications and Kreps DeMaria not to speak to politicians but to shape public opinion to reporters and on social media.

There's still a role for attorneys and more traditional lobbyists, of course, and some have long mounted mini-campaigns of their own, appearing on television and radio shows to plug their clients. Elected officials still like to be catered to directly.

But with the rise of the Internet, public-affairscampaigns give politicians cover to have their constituents persuaded directly, too. And government appears to be in a perennial campaigning state.

"When it comes to winning a public affairs campaign, transparency is becoming the name of the game," said Tadd Schwartz of his namesake firm. "Lobbyists play an important role in influencing policy, but clients recognize there's value in educating and engaging the public through traditional and digital media platforms."
A new crop of firms -- bipartisan and nonpartisan -- is competing for the business.

Last month, Democrat Ben Pollara and Republican Jesse Manzano-Plaza joined forces to create a new communications division at LSN Partners, a local lobbying firm. Pollara ran the statewide medical-marijuana referendum last year. Manzano-Plaza worked on the 2012 Miami-Dade schools bond referendum.

"There's too much noise" in daily life for politicians to make the case for big projects on their own, Pollara said. Corporate clients "look at issues as a campaign. Election Day is the vote, or the rule-making, or the award in procurement."

In January, Schwartz Media alumna Kelly Penton Chacon became director of ASGK Public Strategies' new Miami office. The firm, which was co-founded by former White House adviser David Axelrod, who is no longer involved in the company, bills itself as a corporate communications shop that also organizes referendum campaigns. Penton Chacon, a former city of Miami communications director, was involved in the Fair Districts Florida campaign in 2010.

"We wouldn't necessarily compete with a lobbying firm," said Penton Chacon, whose first client is the Wynwood Business Improvement District. "There's a need for a communications firm that specializes in complex issues… We know all the intricacies that go with getting things passed, from soup to nuts."

The recent moves come after Ashley Walker, who ran President Obama's Florida reelection campaign, joined the Mercury Public Affairs firm and helped lead the 2013 Jackson Health System bond referendum. The Fort Lauderdale Mercury office often works with lobbyists and clients' public-relations staff to boost their campaigns.

"The market is maturing, " she said of South Florida. "The days of who you know getting you what you want are fading."

This post has been updated.