Forum discussions are set to go down this week between Doral governmental candidates, but at least one person vying for public office in the city isn’t participating.
It’s not for fear of defending her ideas or facing her opponents in a public forum, she argued; it’s because the outlet hosting the event, media website Doral Voice, is overtly biased and owned and operated by a political ally of one of her opponents.
“They have been really geared towards personal attacks on elected officials, their families and a lot of people who work in City Hall,” said Doral Councilwoman and former Vice Mayor Claudia Mariaca, who is running for city Mayor.
“I shy away from calling them an organization or even a media outlet. It’s very politically motivated, one of those fly-by-night organizations that show up during an electoral season with no other purpose than to spread bad information.”
Mariaca announced she wouldn’t be participating in the event in an email Tuesday.
She called Doral Voice and a publication for which it hosts an internet radio show, Doral First Magazine, “fake outlets” that have “openly and freely spread false information about our Mayor and members of the Doral Council.”
Doral Voice is registered with the state as a 501(c)3 nonprofit under President Juan Carlos Esquivel, a logistics executive running for Seat 4 on the Doral City Council. The corporation opened in April 2021 and remains in good standing with the state as of Tuesday.
If Esquivel tried to obscure his association with Doral Voice, he wasn’t careful. The phone number listed on his campaign website is the same listed online for Doral Voice. He has also mentioned the outlet several times on his campaign’s Facebook page.
He said he and four others founded and continue to run Doral Voice for the same reason he’s run for public office.
“I am a resident and a citizen who’s been around for many years, and I’m concerned about my city,” he said.
Esquivel said he has invested more than $80,000 of his own money to pay for equipment and operational costs for the outlet. He denied using its internet radio programs and news posts to promote any campaign, including his, more than that of another.
“Every candidate (is invited) to come here to expose their views and their proposals for the city,” he said. “Political ambitions have nothing to do with the way we run the business.”
Since its launch, he said, Doral Voice has registered more than 149,000 views on its website and across its various social media accounts.
He said Mariaca initially accepted Doral Voice’s invitation to participate in the forum before pulling out. Regarding her claims the outlet was biased, financially motivated or beholden to political donors, he invited her to look over its books.
“We’re here as a community service, not to be lucrative. As a matter of fact, I’m out of pocket a lot of money,” he said. “There has not been any donation from other political candidates that ran against (her). Trust me. Come and look at the numbers if you want. My books are open, and I have nothing to hide.”
Esquivel is a political ally of Miami-Dade School Board member Christi Fraga, who is running against Mariaca and two other candidates — Pedro Cabrera Jr. and Haim Otero — for the Doral mayoralty.
In June, Fraga donated $1,000 to Esquivel’s campaign through her political committee, Next Generation Leaders. Fraga also endorsed Esquivel’s 2020 campaign for Doral Council.
Doral First Magazine is a subsidiary of PubliMedia America LLC, which the Division of Corporations lists as opening in February 2021 and going inactive last month. The magazine’s editor, Miguel Landa, told Florida Politics that PubliMedia’s parent company is still operational and registered in New York City.
In May, Doral First Magazine ran a story questioning the motivation of a mailer Mariaca’s office purportedly sent residents in early May with her contact information and an offer to help with issues in the city. The mailer included no mention of Mariaca’s mayoral campaign.
Mariaca noted the outlets openly supported former Sweetwater Commissioner Sophia Lacayo, who spent more than $1 million of her own money to unsuccessfully run against Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez for the Miami-Dade Commission in a campaign rife with red flags and misleading material.
Lacayo bought nearly $37,000 in political ads this year from Doral First Magazine beginning in March. In July, the outlet published a story about a years-old comment by Bermudez about not wanting to give former President Donald Trump keys to the city. Trump endorsed Bermudez the next month.
Bermudez has endorsed Mariaca as his preferred successor.
Mariaca told Florida Politics that rather than attend Doral Voice’s “sham debate” she aims to participate in another one tentatively scheduled for later this week on WSB Mega TV, a local station under the Spanish Broadcasting System banner.
She also hopes to take part in the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County’s Doral Mayoral Candidate Forum, which the group postponed to Nov. 1 from 7-8:30 p.m.
“I am not shying away from any of these debates,” she said. “I just refuse to acknowledge this so-called media outlet. It takes away from real media. I like facts, and I like debating actual stuff. I’m happy to do it any time as long as it’s fair and unbiased.”
The Tuesday “Candidate Forum” on Doral Voice between candidates for Mayor began at around 3 p.m. Fraga and Otero appeared in-studio with “renowned journalist and news director” Carlos Nuñez moderating. Mariaca and Cabrera were represented by empty seats with nameplates atop them that the outlet printed before the event.
The other forums for seats 1, 2 and 4 on the Doral Council were scheduled to take place, respectively, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
While Mariaca’s criticism and negativity aimed at Doral Voice has led to several other candidates not participating in the forums, there’s been at least one positive side effect: it’s attracting interest.
“People are asking, ‘Why is this happening with this radio station called Doral’s Voice,’ and our hits and views jumped from zero to 60 in seconds,” he said. “So, I’m happy about that. Continue to say that we’re fake.”
This story was updated to include comments from Esquivel and to clarify Doral Voice is a registered nonprofit.