Ariel Fernandez wins Group 5 seat on Coral Gables Commission
Ariel Fernandez, who won election to the Coral Gables Commission in April, says Holmes' accusation doesn't make sense. Image via Ariel Fernandez.

Ariel Fernandez
He and his opponent promised to curb overdevelopment in Coral Gables, an issue top-of-mind for many residents.

Persistence paid off for activist, consultant and local media mogul Ariel Fernandez, who is now bound for the Coral Gables Commission.

Fernandez, who first sought a seat in City Hall eight years ago, captured 58% of the vote Tuesday night to defeat lawyer and former congressional staffer Alex Bucelo.

He replaces outgoing Vice Mayor Mike Mena in the Group 5 seat.

“I am humbled by the responsibility placed upon me by our residents,” Fernandez said in a statement. “I look forward to making residents the priority once again. Residents sent a historic message. They want a Commissioner who is unbought and unbossed and beholden only to them.”

Florida Politics has reached out to Bucelo for comment and will update this story upon receipt of one.

Fernandez’s victory marks the culmination of decades of government work and volunteer public service. It also caps a race that grew nastier as Election Day approached.

A pivotal time

Both men ran on promises to curb overdevelopment in Coral Gables, an issue top-of-mind for many residents.

Long insulated from developments that could reshape the city’s skyline and clash with its Mediterranean aesthetic, Coral Gables officials have grown friendlier to transformative construction in recent years, to the chagrin of many residents — including one whose small home, now surrounded by a massive mixed development, resembles the protagonist’s from the Pixar movie “Up.”

With the help of a newly composed Miami-Dade County Commission, the city is also advancing with previously quashed plans to annex the nearby unincorporated neighborhoods of Little GablesHigh Pines and Ponce Davis.

A January poll of residents found that most Coral Gables voters are OK with the Little Gables annexation. But not all are jazzed about it. The Coral Gables firefighters union, which in January opted for arbitration after two years’ worth of contract negotiations went nowhere, said the annexations would further strain an already thinned department by adding 900 acres of serviceable area.

Funding and promises

In terms of funding, Bucelo carried a much heavier purse. He raised more than $278,000 between his campaign account and political committee, Friends of the Gables, since filing to run in August.

That includes numerous five-figure donations from local businesses, including several real estate development companies and consulting firms. Personal checks came in as high as $5,000, and Bucelo also scored contributions from political committees, including those of Miami-Dade Commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera, who represents Coral Gables at County Hall, and former Coral Gables Commissioner Jorge Fors.

Fernandez, who filed around the same time as Bucelo, received roughly $28,500 in donations through late March, including $100 from former Pinecrest Mayor and state Rep. Cindy Lerner.

He received just one corporate contribution, a $500 check from Law Services PA, a Coral Gables-based legal firm. Unlike his opponent, Fernandez noted that he did not take any money from builders.

Bucelo’s platform focused on maintaining the “character and charm” of the city, opposing large-scale construction, enhancing residents’ quality of life, supporting public safety, reducing taxes without cutting services and making Coral Gables more resilient.

Fernandez said he wanted to slow construction, streamline the permitting process for home renovations, reroute funding from some big construction projects to pay for city needs, improve public safety, boost transportation, address traffic congestion, increase parking provisions, add enforcement officers to the city’s payroll, maintain the city’s tree canopy, support local businesses and boost government transparency.

Backgrounds, endorsements

Both candidates carried records of public service into Election Day.

Bucelo has been a member of the Coral Gables Planning and Zoning Board, Code Enforcement Board, the Mayor’s Advisory Council and the Coral Gables Museum Board of Directors.

Fernandez, a former congressional staffer, has served as Chair of the city’s School Community Relations Committee, Property Advisory Board and Emergency Management Division Board, as well as the Miami-Dade County Film and Entertainment Board.

He is also the publisher of Gables Insider, a city-focused blog through which he has highlighted issues of residential import, including an “Executive Benefits Package” 54 people on the city payroll began receiving in 2017 without Commission approval.

Fernandez worked for nearly 15 years as a campaign coordinator and congressional aide for former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. From 2011 to 2013, he served as a district director for U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who last year was arrested on several charges, including failing to register as a foreign agent for Venezuela.

In 2021, Fernandez’s consulting firm, The American Strategies Group, worked for Lago’s mayoral campaign.

Lago endorsed Bucelo despite that prior affiliation. Others backing Bucelo include Mena, Coral Gables Commissioner Rhonda Anderson and Commissioner Kirk Menendez, whom Bucelo faced in 2021.

Three former Mayors — Jim CasonDon Slesnick and Raúl Valdés-Fauli — endorsed Bucelo too. Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak called residents on Bucelo’s behalf as well, according to Political Cortadito.

Fernandez received endorsements from Arthur Estopiñan, Ros-Lehtinen’s former Chief of Staff; Jennifer Ward Sando, who served alongside Fernandez on the School Community Relations Committee; former education board member Nuria Alloza Sanchez; former Coral Gables firefighter Nelson Rodriguez; and Gables Neighbors United.

Campaign nastiness

The race wasn’t without some ugliness. In recent months, residents have received texts and mailers labeling Fernandez as a “socialist” due to his work more than a decade ago for Rivera.

The texts were funded by Getting Things Done, a political committee whose Chair, Jason Blank, backed attack ads against Lago two years ago when former Commissioner Pat Keon challenged him.

Fernandez told the Miami Herald the accusation is unfair and inaccurate. Bucelo denied involvement with the mailers.

More Getting Things Done-funded attack texts continued this week with a fake mock-up of a Coral Gables Magazine cover featuring Fernandez and labeling him a “Gables Insider” who is “shameful,” “spreading misinformation” and “astonishingly inaccurate.”

The magazine’s editor, James Faber, said the outlet had “nothing to do with the cover.”

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 Jess[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.



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