Juan Carlos Bermudez wins District 12 seat on Miami-Dade Commission

The race to succeed term-limited Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz attracted more than $2M in fundraising.

Doral Mayor Juan Carlos “J.C.” Bermudez has won the District 12 seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission, defeating an opponent who poured more than $1 million of her own money into the race.

With early and mail-in voting totals tabulated and all 49 precincts reporting at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Bermudez had 66% of the vote compared to 34% for former Sweetwater Commissioner Sophia Lacayo. They were the only two candidates in the race.

Bermudez is now set to take the District 12 seat following the General Election. He will succeed longtime Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who in November must leave office due to term limits voters approved in 2012,

District 12 covers an area in northwest Miami-Dade encompassing all or part of the municipalities of Doral, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Medley, Sweetwater and Virginia Gardens, as well a large portion of the county’s unincorporated area.

Both are Republican, of Latin American descent and included backing small businesses and first responders in their respective campaign platforms. That was about where the similarities end.

Bermudez had a nearly 20-year political career to lean on, including two stints as Doral Mayor; his current Vice Chairmanship of the county’s pivotal transportation planning board, which steers billions of locally, federally and state-funded mobility projects; and board memberships to numerous leagues of cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

His campaign for the County Commission attracted scores of endorsements from the likes of Republican former President Donald Trump, Democratic Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, the Mayors of nearly every municipality District 12 covers and a multitude of local unions and trade groups.

Following Bermudez’s victory Tuesday, Levine Cava issued a statement congratulating him.

“J.C. has been a strong champion and leader for Doral families,” she said. “I look forward to working with him as he represents the residents of District 12 and brings his steady leadership (to) the Miami-Dade County Commission.”

Lacayo, meanwhile, boasted the bigger campaign pocketbook, a penchant for playing dirty and a much spottier history. A tax preparer, real estate investor and Spanish-language talk radio host, Lacayo served on the Sweetwater Commission for just a year and a half before she was forced to resign after pleading guilty to perjury for falsely claiming she lived in the city during her campaign.

Through early August, her District 12 campaign reported raising $1.24 million. More than 91% of that — $1.13 million — came from either her own bank account, businesses she owns or family members, according to her filings with the county.

She spent more than $1 million on various campaign costs, including big ad buys — an incredible amount of money to spend on a job that pays $6,000 yearly, not counting benefits.

Bermudez raised $860,000. Of that sum, he spent more than $600,000 on consulting, advertising, canvassing, signage, apparel and other general campaign costs.

Some of Lacayo’s cash paid for an attack website called NoBermudez.com and a pair of Spanish-language videos that have been viewed on YouTube a combined 57,700 times. The videos, which feature three people as talking heads, claim Bermudez oversaw policies as Doral Mayor that harmed small businesses and that he was complicit in underage narcotics use, sex work and coverups of drug overdoses.

Her campaign also funded misleading mailers whose design suggested she received an endorsement from Levine Cava and Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo, both Democrats. Both swiftly made clear they did not support Lacayo, with Taddeo urging voters to back Bermudez at the ballot box.

As Florida Politics first reported, Lacayo may have leveraged federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to fund her campaign. Numerous companies registered under Lacayo’s name gave maximum contributions to her campaign. All received PPP loans totaling millions of dollars.

Lacayo is facing a lawsuit from Sweetwater, which has demanded she repay nearly $69,000 in wages she received while illegally serving as a Commissioner. In July, she dropped an effort to seal the records of her perjury case after prosecutors pushed back, arguing the public should know of a candidate’s prior misdeeds.

Her business, Lacayo Trade Group, has also faced six civil suits totaling $350,000 over credit card, business equipment, commercial loan and legal bill debts against claims an employee lodged stemming from alleged unpaid overtime and lost wages.

She is married to Nelson Rubio, a local broadcaster who has bashed Bermudez on air while promoting his wife’s campaign. Her financial disclosures show she claims to have a net worth of nearly $25 million.

Lacayo also may not speak English fluently. A YouTube search for video interviews of her in English online yielded just one result, and the conversation quickly switched to Spanish after Lacayo stumbled over thanking the interviewer for speaking with her.

According to NBC 6, Lacayo declined “about a dozen interview requests” and refused to debate Bermudez. The outlets said that while being interviewed by investigators over her unrefunded Sweetwater salary, she spoke in Spanish, which had to be translated into English.

The Miami Herald reported that Lacayo agreed to speak to a reporter at a recent campaign event, answering the first question in Spanish after an aide translated it from English. Lacayo insisted that she speaks “English very well” but declined to continue the interview.

There appears to be no rule requiring a person to speak English while serving on the Miami-Dade Commissioner. But a lack of proficiency in English could prove problematic. All documents the Commission reviews, including reports, budget items, resolutions, ordinances and other materials, are also produced in English. The Commission employs translators when hearing from residents who speak only Spanish or Haitian Creole.

Bermudez’s campaign stresses his “experience and transparency” in government. He vowed, if elected, to improve residents’ quality of life, “fight wasteful spending by our county government,” support health care workers, boost the economy and look for “innovative ideas” to solve the county’s traffic and transit issues.

Lacayo promised to address housing affordability and community health. She promised to work on unsnarling Miami-Dade’s half-percent sales tax known as the “half-penny” from funding existing transit operations and maintenance and reroute it toward its intended use — expanding transit. (Miami-Dade Commissioners voted to do just that in March 2019.)

Diaz, a former Mayor of Sweetwater who is departing from the County Commission after two decades of uninterrupted service, all but confirmed in March that he plans to again lead the city, his longtime home.

He and Bermudez were at odds last year over a business-rich area that generates more than $1 million in annual tax revenue for the county and contains distribution centers for Amazon, Goya Foods, UPS and John Deere.

Both Doral and Sweetwater applied to annex the area, but Diaz in July 2021 succeeded in passing a fast-tracked ordinance imposing new restrictions blocking Sweetwater — but not Doral — from being able to absorb the area.

On Dec. 1, the Miami-Dade Commission, which Diaz chairs, gave a final OK to Sweetwater’s annexation of the two-square-mile area.

Bermudez called Diaz’s actions from the dais “totally inappropriate,” adding: “This is why people get bothered by government. Changing the rules in the middle of the game is bad policy, bad government.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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