In the next few weeks you can expect to see a flurry of campaigning for Miami’s vacant District 2 city commission seat. Headlining the short race is a well-known former county judge, who’s up against 13 other contenders vying for the title of anti-establishment candidate.
Two years after resigning from the bench amid a scandal that he violated several judicial canons, Martin Zilber is getting another shot at public life as the presumptive favorite to claim Ken Russell’s former job in a Feb. 27 special election.
“I think I am in the best position to win,” Zilber told the Biscayne Times. “I have gone through the election process before. A number of people are supporting me, including major activists, community leaders, city commissioners and the mayor (Francis Suarez). I also think I will get elected because I have the best qualifications.”
Zilber is certainly the candidate with the most clout, says Keith Donner, a political consultant who worked campaigns for Miami Commission Chairwoman Christine King in 2021 and her predecessor, Keon Hardemon. (Donner is not working for any of the District 2 candidates). But given the short time frame, high number of candidates, expectations for a very low turnout and no runoff requirement, he believes that the District 2 seat is within reach for any candidate with a strong following within their own community.
“You can literally win by just saturating two precincts,” Donner said. “Anyone with credibility in their neighborhood can win. It’s completely wide open.”
The crowded field includes Sabina Covo, a former journalist who now owns a communications company and lives in Coconut Grove; Michael Goggins, a wealth manager and compliance officer who lives in Brickell; Javier González, Realtor and Coconut Grove Village Council president; Lior Halabi, a digital marketing director and former political strategist for the Israeli Knesset who resides in Edgewater; and Eddy Leal, Brickell resident and counsel for Suarez who’s taken a leave of absence from that role to run.
The other candidates are Maxwell Manuel “Max” Martinez, a marketing agency owner who ran for mayor against Suarez last year, garnering 11% of the vote; Lorenzo Palomares, a tax attorney who lives in Coconut Grove; Kathy Jane Parks Suarez, an automobile dealer living in Coconut Grove; June Ellen Savage, a Coconut Grove-based Realtor; Christi Tasker, a home décor and fashion jewelry designer who lives in Brickell; James Torres, Downtown Neighbors Alliance president and a resident of downtown Miami; and Mario Francis Vuksanovic, a city of Miami employee who resides in Brickell.
Russell, who won reelection in 2019, set the wheels in motion for the quickie special election when he resigned Dec. 29 after losing a Congressional race. After marathon January meetings that deadlocked over appointing an interim replacement, the special election was called.
Zilber says he wasn’t planning on holding public office again, but he was approached by Joe Carollo, Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Suarez about serving the remainder of Russell’s term.
“I do think I could have hit the ground running had I been appointed, and I still think I can,” he said.
In 2021, Zilber resigned from his position as a Miami-Dade County judge after the Florida Judicial Qualifying Commission found probable cause that he violated judicial canons. An investigation confirmed he got paid for hours he wasn’t at work and made his assistants run personal errands and work on his political campaign, among other violations. The commission recommended Zilber be suspended for 60 days, pay a $30,000 fine and write apology letters to his staffers.
In a phone interview, Zilber said a subsequent investigation by the Florida Bar exonerated him.
In July of last year, the Florida Bar grievance committee did in fact confirm that it found no probable cause for further disciplinary proceedings against him, according to a letter it sent to Zilber that he shared with the Times. During the committee’s hearing, sitting judges Bertila Soto, Miguel de la O, Victoria Ferrer, Gina Benavides, Lisa Walsh and Veronica Diaz testified that the allegations against him were meritless.
“The accusations against me were blatantly false,” said Zilber. “I enjoy public service, but I don’t need to do it. When everything blew up, I made the decision not to drag it out. I resigned for family reasons.”
The $500,000 candidate
Zilber claims he’s already raised an astonishing $300,000 and has budgeted for a half-a-million-dollar campaign. (Deadlines for initial campaign finance reports came after BT’s print deadline for this issue).
“Yes, that’s a lot of money to spend on this campaign,” Zilber said. “But that is what you have to do to get the word out.”
He hired Jesse Manzano-Plaza as his campaign manager, a Miami-based political strategist whose most recent client, Kevin Marino Cabrera, was elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission District 6 seat in November with 61.5% of the vote. Manzano-Plaza also led winning referendums in the general election for a $1.5 billion redevelopment of the James L. Knight Center and adjacent Hyatt Hotel, and raising property taxes countywide to boost teacher pay. His client list includes U.S. Rep. Carlos Giménez, former Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez and Suarez.
“Jesse is the main manager, but a lot of folks are working with us,” Zilber said. “We have people who have done this before and know what to do to get our message out.”
Blanketing voters with mailers, television spots and social media messaging costs a lot of money, affirmed Donner. A new Florida law went into effect Jan. 1 requiring all voters to request mail-in ballots every time there is an election is also raising the stakes.
“Everyone is starting from scratch,” Donner said. “But the candidates who have the money to run a vote-by-mail sign-up campaign can absolutely capitalize.”
However, he would still place bets on the candidates who have established bona fides as community activists and already have a small base of supporters who can be relied on to help get the vote out, Donner said. “Those who have circles of friends, acquaintances and neighbors who can make phone calls and knock on doors are positioned to be competitive.”
Don’t rule others out
Some candidates who spoke with the Times believe they have those credentials, as are pressing upon voters that they don’t want a political insider like Zilber on the city commission. For instance, Savage shared that she had already launched her campaign for the District 2 general election in November.
She raised about $11,000 and spent $6,000 for that race, according to a campaign finance report. Since switching her candidacy over to the special election, Savage says she’s now raised $25,000 and hired a campaign manager, Emilio Atuñez, principal of political consulting firm Dark Horse Strategies.
For the past two years, Savage has been preparing for a crack at District 2, regularly attending city commission and city board meetings, and getting to know Russell’s staff, which she intends to retain if elected. She spent most of January pounding the pavement in Morningside, Bay Heights, Brickell and Coconut Grove.
“I have a blister on my foot from all the walking,” she said. “I have sent out mass texts, emails and postcards. We have alerted voters who vote by mail to go ahead and register and request their ballots.”
Tasker has built up credibility by being among the property owners who raised the alarm in 2021 about construction crews at the Una Residences condominium development site which was breaching Miami’s aquifer. She’s also been an activist against the urban planning that’s led to runaway high-rise development in Brickell without addressing the neighborhood’s small, congested streets, she said.
She’s running a grassroots campaign and has built her own website. Tasker would like to win the endorsement and financial support of the city’s police and fire unions, but she doesn’t plan to fundraise other than from small donors.
“I have about 10 active volunteers who are managing their people,” she said. “I’ve had about seven campaign managers who have reached out to me but I haven’t had time to interview them. I am not relying on others to get things done.”
Leal, whose city job entails writing the mayor’s vetoes, legislation, proclamations and other ceremonial documents, admitted he is a novice at political campaigning.
“I don’t necessarily have a budget and I am not a politician,” he said. “But I am raising money and getting help from different sources to facilitate a successful campaign.”
Leal claims he’s got many supporters in Brickell from being a member of his condo board, and that he’s garnered good will in the Grove by helping enact legislation that improved the permitting process for historic preservation sites. He said District 2 voters he’s spoken with don’t want Zilber.
“I have lost count on how many doors I have knocked on, and the sentiment is not him,” Leal said. “You can have all the money in the world, but that doesn’t buy you votes.”
Zilber dismissed perceptions that he’s going to be a yes man for Suarez, Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla.
“I don’t run away from the fact that the mayor and commissioners are supporting me,” he said. “But no one is going to tell me what to do.”