Sabina Covo wins Special Election for short-term seat on Miami City Commission
Sabina Covo won a Special Election in February to finish the term of former Commissioner Ken Russell, who left office after an unsuccessful run for Congress. Her seat was again up for grabs Tuesday. Image via Sabina Covo.

The race for an eight-month stint on the City Commission drew more than $1 million in campaign funds since January.

Public relations and media pro Sabina Covo is headed to the Miami City Commission after defeating 12 other candidates Monday in a Special Election for the District 2 seat.

With all 44 precincts reporting and all early, mail-in and Election Day ballots tallied at 8:14 p.m. Monday, Covo had 1,861 ballots cast for her, representing 30% of the vote.

Runners up Eddy Leal, James Torres and Martin Zilber had 22%, 15% and 12% of the vote, respectively.

The rules of the Special Election provided the person with the most votes wins the seat outright. There is no runoff.

Just 13% of the 49,199 eligible voters in District 2 participated in the election.

The District 2 seat is again up for grabs Nov. 7. Whoever wins then will secure a full, four-year term. Covo has already committed to running for re-election.

“Tonight, I am truly humbled by the support I received from the voters of District 2. They sent a resounding messaging that it’s time to get to problem-solving and getting things done for our community,” Covo said in a statement.

“We need to push past the disarray and differences seen at times, and unite as one city focused on our residents. We have many challenges and equal opportunities to put solutions forward that will put our City on a roadmap to success. As a longtime resident of District 2, a working mom and wife, I know our best days are ahead and I am truly ready to get to work. To our residents, I say thank you for your trust and vote of confidence.”

Covo will serve the remaining eight months of former Commissioner Ken Russell’s term representing District 2, which spans most of the city’s coast and includes the Brickell, Coconut Grove, downtown Miami, Edgewater and Morningside neighborhoods.

Russell vacated his seat in early January following an unsuccessful bid for Congress just days before he would have been forced to leave office in accordance with Florida’s resign-to-run law. A motion to replace him by appointment failed shortly after.

Russell, who endorsed Covo to succeed him and attended her election party Monday, tweeted a video of the event and a short, message of encouragement.

In another post, Russell said he is “Feeling optimistic” about Miami’s future.

“Affordable housing, the Environment, and Good Government all have a champion in Commissioner Elect @SabinaCovo,” he tweeted.

Covo’s win marked the first Democratic victory in the Sunshine State under the new party leadership of Nikki Fried, who on Saturday won an election to become Chair of the Florida Democratic Party. Fried,

Fried, Covo’s former boss at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, applauded Covo’s win on Twitter at about 8:12 p.m. She previously endorsed her.

“You will be an amazing leader and public servant,” she wrote.

Other congratulatory messages came quickly.

Former state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who also endorsed Covo and attended her Election Night party alongside Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, called Covo a “good friend” and her victory “a huge win.”

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the Florida Democratic Party, Miami-Dade Democratic Party and Brickell Homeowners Association posted similar felicitations.

Mucarsel-Powell pointed to Covo’s win as evidence Florida isn’t yet a fully red state.

“Miami is Blue, Florida is purple, don’t let MAGA cons tell you otherwise,” she wrote.

Ruth’s List Florida, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, said it is “thrilled” to see Covo win her first campaign for public office. It noted her two decades of experience as an investigative journalist as particularly valuable tools she can use in her new job.

“(She’ll) work tirelessly to deliver results for Miamians,” the group said in a statement. “She’s ready to take on the major issues facing the city’s residents — affordable housing, public safety, public transportation — and will fight to improve the overall quality of life for all residents.”

Sabina Covo boasts state government experience, having led media operations for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Image via Sabina Covo.

Covo, 43, owns and operates an eponymous public relations firm in Miami specializing in real estate, business, economics and political analysis. Between December 2021 and January 2023, she served as director of media relations for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services under Fried.

For nearly 20 years, Covo worked as a journalist in various capacities in the Greater Miami area for news organizations including Telemundo, PRISA, SBS, Caracoal Broadcasting, Spanish Broadcasting System, MundoFox and the Miami Herald, where she wrote a weekly opinion column for the media outlet’s Spanish-language publication, El Nuevo Herald.

She raised $98,000 in donations between her campaign account and political committee, Dream Miami PC, for her Miami Commission bid.

Her priorities for Miami, per her campaign website, include supporting law enforcement, protecting the environment, promoting housing affordability, combating corruption and investing in city infrastructure.

Candidates attracted more than $1 million in campaign funds over the Special Election race’s month-and-a-half duration.

None drew more than Zilber, a 61-year-old lawyer and former Judge who carried endorsements from Mayor Francis Suarez, Commissioners Joe Carollo and Alex Diaz de la Portilla, and several advocacy and union groups.

Martin Zilber raised more than half a million dollars in less than two months for his Miami City Commission bid. Image via Martin Zilber.

Zilber drew heavily from Miami’s real estate development sector to amass more than $514,000 between his campaign account and political committee, Beautify Grove Miami. He spent more than $200,000 of that sum by late February.

One of many candidates to fill out a questionnaire for the Miami Herald ahead of Election Day, Zilber listed police recruitment, adding to the city’s affordable and workforce housing supply, and improving the city’s parks as his top three campaign priorities.

The Miami Commission seat was the first publicly elected office Zilber sought since leaving the bench in May 2021 amid a Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission inquiry into alleged misconduct. The Commission dropped the investigation after Zilber resigned, and the Florida Bar subsequently found no probable cause to sanction him.

Eddy Leal is no stranger to working at Miami City Hall. Image via Eddy Leal.

Leal, a 37-year-old lawyer who until recently served as Suarez’s legal adviser — an activity he paused for the campaign — collected more than $39,000 through his campaign account. Citizens for Florida Prosperity PC, a political committee Leal acknowledged as raising and spending money on his behalf, drew another $125,000 since November.

The President of the Bayshore Palace Condo Association, Leal listed government transparency, improved quality of life for residents, reduced taxes, support for first responders, traffic and flooding mitigation, and restoring and renovating the Coconut Grove Playhouse as priorities on his campaign website.

He received an endorsement from One Grove, a community activism group.

In 2019, the year he began working for Suarez, Leal faced since dismissed accusations of improper lobbying with the city.

James Torres leads a condo organization representing some 30,000 Miami residents. Image via James Torres.

Torres, a telecommunications company business management director and President of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, which represents 30,000 or so Miami condo residents, raised more than $111,000 between his campaign account and political committee, Roundtable Miami PC.

The 51-year-old highlighted public safety, transportation improvement, flood mitigation, housing affordability and environmental improvements as priorities on his campaign website.

Torres, a former account executive with the Miami Herald, won the Herald’s endorsement for the District 2 race. This week, however, the Herald released previously unreported information about Torres’ background, including that he had been the subject of at least four charges of assault and probation violation between 1995 and 2010 — most dropped or dismissed — stemming from a messy divorce and child custody dispute.

The Herald did not retract its recommendation of Torres, noting the length of time that has passed since and there being no indication Torres was convicted of a serious crime.

Realtor June Savage, 55, was one of several District 2 candidates to previously run for elected office, placing a distant second with 8% of the vote in a 2017 race for Miami Beach Mayor.

This year, she raised $31,000 for her Miami City Commission bid, most of it self-given.

Her top three priorities included police recruitment, reducing traffic congestion and flooding mitigation through natural solutions and manmade infrastructure.

Placing sixth in fundraising, Lorenzo “Larry” Palomares-Starbuck also is no stranger to the campaign trail, having unsuccessfully run for Congress in 2014 and Florida Senate in 2017.

In between those two bids, he served as a surrogate for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The 68-year-old lawyer and real estate development executive’s campaign raised about $18,500. His top three issues: addressing flooding, lowering housing costs by cutting Citizens Property Insurance Corp. pricing and creating a new, local government agency to guide affordable housing and economic development in the city’s West Grove neighborhood.

Lior Halabi, a 40-year-old marketing pro, ran a mostly self-funded campaign to gather around $27,000 by Monday.

Similar to his opponents, addressing traffic congestion and adding to Miami’s affordable housing supply were at the top of his list of priorities. He also said he’d work to provide more support to small businesses if elected, his campaign website said, and improve Miami’s workforce development and standing as a “technology gateway.”

Javier Gonzalez, 61, ran twice before for the City Commission. Neither bid earned him a seat. But he did serve his community in another elected capacity as a member of the Grove Village Council for four years, through 2017.

Through Monday, he raised more than $22,000 for his third run at Miami City Hall.

Gonzalez said he’d focus on squaring Miami’s budget if elected and ensuring the $25 million apportioned to District 2 in the city’s 2021 Stormwater Master Plan is properly allocated.

Kathy Parks Suarez, a 65-year-old auto dealer, was the only candidate to tell the Herald she did not intend on running for re-election in November if she won Monday. However, she said she’d be open to the prospect if “it is the will of the community.”

Her campaign raised $10,000, all her own money.

Marketer Max Martinez, 31, was last on a Miami ballot in 2021, when he scored 11.6% of the vote in a bid to supplant Suarez as Mayor.

He raised more than $7,000 over the last two months to win a seat on the Miami Commission, where he said he planned to address city flooding, preserve the cultural history of District 2 and improve traffic.

Martinez’s campaign website said he wants to protect Virginia Key from destructive real estate development, improve the city’s parks and address noise pollution.

Christi Tasker, a 47-year-old product designer, marketing consultant and the former creative director of Casa Wynwood, raised $5,000. She said she decided to run to help preserve Miami’s historic buildings and tree canopies, provide better aid to the homeless population and improve waste management.

Sixty-one-year-old Michael Goggins, a wealth manager, told Coconut Grove Spotlight he planned to tackle flood mitigation efforts and improve safeguards for pedestrian and cyclists if he won Monday. His campaign website listed public safety, traffic congestion and coastal flooding as priority issues.

His campaign reported raising $1,600.

Mario Vuksanovic, a 60-year-old musician and former homeless outreach specialist for the city, said building a tunnel from Brickell Avenue to downtown Miami to address traffic congestion in the city was his top priority. He reported raising just $800.

Two other candidates who filed for the contest — Alicia Kossick and Renita Samuels-Dixon — dropped out of the race in January.

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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