Miguel Gabela, Damián Pardo unseat incumbents on Miami City Commission

Gabela Pardo
They won despite significant funding disadvantages.

Miami voters opted for change Tuesday, electing a pair of new City Commission members in runoff races.

Former Miami Zoning Board member Miguel Gabela had 54% of 3,223 votes counted to supplant suspended Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla in a rematch four years in the making. Those figures may shift slightly as additional Election Day ballots are counted and cured.

Gabela will take the District 1 seat from which Díaz de la Portilla was removed two months ago after his arrest on felony corruption charges.

Meanwhile, financial planner and longtime community activist Damián Pardo received 52.5% of 5,143 votes counted to beat incumbent Commissioner Sabina Covo for the District 2 seat, which Covo won just nine months earlier.

Pardo’s victory makes him the first openly gay person elected to the Miami Commission.

“Our campaign began on the belief that we can do better. We wanted to highlight the corruption and lack of transparency, and undue influence of money that exists in the city. We showed how these moneyed interests are pitted against residents’ needs,” Pardo told Florida Politics by text.

“We fought hard for a better day in Miami. Today marks the beginning of that change. Thank you to the passionate residents, voters and activists (who) are as committed as I am. Today is their victory.”

None of the candidates Tuesday received a large enough percentage of the vote in the city’s General Election earlier this month to win outright. Díaz de la Portilla and Gabela outpaced three others with 36.6% and 28.8% of the vote, respectively.

Covo and Pardo took 39% and 26% shares to knock five other candidates out of contention.

This year’s election came at a tense time for Miami. Three of the city’s six elected officials are under investigation for misusing their positions for personal benefit or vendetta. Housing prices are at crisis levels. Flooding, already a significant problem, is worsening.

Those and other issues factored into residents’ decisions at the ballot box.

On Tuesday, The winners join Commissioners Christine King, Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes, who trounced a long-shot challenger on Nov. 7 to win a third term representing District 4.

Carollo is being investigated for allegations he weaponized employees and departments to harass a pair of business owners in the city. In June, a Broward jury found him liable for violating the business owners’ First Amendment rights, awarding the plaintiffs $63.5 million in compensation.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez also faces federal and state scrutiny into whether he improperly accepted payment and gifts.

(L-R) Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Miguel Gabela competed Tuesday in their 2019 runoff showdown rematch. Images via AP and Miguel Gabela.

District 1

Díaz de la Portilla, a former state lawmaker and career politician, ran to win back the seat from which Gov. Ron DeSantis removed him on Sept. 15. The day before, state law enforcement agents arrested him on felony charges of corruption, bribery, money laundering and criminal conspiracy, among other counts.

He denied all wrongdoing and declared the charges a partisan “work of fiction” meant to remove him from power.

While in office, his critical contributions included sponsorship of an expansion of COVID-19 relief gift cards, a push to regulate motorized scooters in the city, and a successful effort last year to end Miami’s opposition to medical marijuana facilities.

Since winning in 2019 to represent District 1 — which covers the neighborhoods of Allapattah, Grapeland Heights, the Health District and parts of Little Havana — Díaz de la Portilla amassed nearly $2.8 million between his campaign account and political committee (PC), Proven Leadership for Miami-Dade County PC.

A third of the $1.6 million the PC collected between January and October came from 13 developers; most have active projects in the city, according to an analysis by The Real Deal.

Gabela, an auto parts salesperson, raised a comparatively paltry $74,000 this cycle. More than a quarter came from his bank account. Another $9,000 came from lobbyist and former state lawmaker Manny Prieguez, a one-time Díaz de la Portilla ally. Prieguez is now suing the suspended Commissioner for an alleged “shakedown” scheme involving the city’s Rickenbacker Marina.

Díaz de la Portilla said no such thing happened.

Gabela had to fight to stay on the ballot this year after Miami’s reshaped voting map cut his home from District 1. He sued. The city countersued. In late September, a judge ruled that Gabela was qualified to run in the district.

But on Monday, one day before the runoff election, a lawyer for Díaz de la Portilla filed a lawsuit to declare Gabela ineligible to run for office and Díaz de la Portilla the default winner.

Former Rep. Juan Carlos Planas, who represented Gabela in his candidacy lawsuit, told WLRN Díaz de la Portilla’s complaint is “without merit.” Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal then again cleared Gabela’s candidacy.

Gabela’s campaign priorities included hiring more police officers, improving resident benefits and services, enhancing public transportation, and creating more affordable housing options.

Díaz de la Portilla, who lost his family home in a foreclosure sale last Tuesday, did not create a campaign website and was largely uncommunicative with the media.

In their 2019 showdown, also a runoff, Díaz de la Portilla took nearly 61% of the vote.

The contest between fellow Democrats Sabina Covo and longtime Damian Pardo became more contentious as the runoff Election Day neared. Image via the candidates.

District 2

Pardo and Covo, both Democrats, shared some priority overlaps. Both placed improving public safety, housing affordability and infrastructure high on their lists.

Covo said she wanted to add more environmental protections, fight overdevelopment and end “dysfunction and broken promises” at City Hall.

While never before an elected official, Pardo promised to bring ample leadership and administrative experience to the job. After helping to found SAVE, he served as President of the region’s largest AIDS service organization, Care Resource. He led what later became the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

In 2015, he cofounded 4Ward Miami, a nonprofit group that launched the annual Gay8 Festival. He also served on the Stonewall National Museum and Archives boards in Fort Lauderdale and SAGE, which serves LGBTQ elders.

Pardo said he would fight to increase opportunities for all residents if elected. He singled out those living in Miami’s historic Black neighborhoods like West Grove as being particularly affected by “rampant development and gentrification.”

He also wanted to upgrade Miami’s public spaces and shore up its protections against rising sea levels, including expediting projects funded through the $400 million Miami Forever Bonds and creating a collaborative task force with the county.

During her brief tenure at City Hall, Covo, a TV journalist-turned-public relations pro, established an “ECO Squad” to handle drainage issues in her flood-prone district and secured $3.5 million for affordable housing.

She also sponsored legislation to create a heat-mitigation plan for the city.

Before winning in February, she worked for a year as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesperson under former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, now the Chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

Covo led Pardo, the founding Chair of the LGBTQ advocacy group SAVE, in fundraising by a sizable margin. Since her victory in February, Covo collected more than $630,000 between her campaign account and political committee, Dream Miami, to stay in office.

Well over half that sum came from land use attorneys, marina operators, architects and builders, including two Miami development firms with projects in the city where Covo did public relations work, The Real Deal first reported.

Pardo raised $256,000 through Nov. 2, including more than $165,000 in self-loans. Almost everything came through personal checks from mostly South Florida residents.

Covo’s tenure as an elected official hasn’t been unblemished. At her first Commission hearing in mid-March, she could not recite the Pledge of Allegiance when asked to lead the chamber. The incident drew national headlines.

Another District 2 candidate, James Torres, also accused Covo of offering him a $120,000 contractor job with the city in exchange for his endorsement. Torres told documentarian Billy Corben during an episode of the podcast #BecauseMiami that he turned down the offer and instead endorsed Pardo.

After his win Tuesday, Pardo said he wanted to thank Torres and other District 2 candidates Alicia Kossick and Michael Castro “for their endorsements and hard work.”

He later released a video claiming Covo was plotting a fake endorsement from Carollo to sabotage his campaign.

Covo has called Torres’ claims “categorically and unequivocally false.”

She also netted a nod from Pardo’s former organization, SAVE, after the group’s endorsement panel uncovered what it described as his “troubling support” for the state’s Parental Rights in Education law that opponents labeled “Don’t Say Gay.”

SAVE Executive Director Todd Delmay cited minutes from a February 2022 meeting of Miami’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Board in which Pardo called the measure a “political ploy” and said, “We may miss an opportunity to express the values they want to be fostered at home.”

The Miami Herald first reported on the issue Thursday. Pardo told the Herald the SAVE board misinterpreted his comments and that he has never taken a position against “any LGBTQ issue that helps the community or the community is backing.”

He said he was and remains against the bill and voted, along with every other advisory board member, for a resolution opposing it. He said his comments warned against using reactionary rather than strategic language to sway the City Commission to take an official position on the bill — which it didn’t.

District 2 spans most of the city’s coast and includes the Brickell, Coconut Grove, Downtown, Edgewater and Morningside neighborhoods.

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.


  • JJ Colagrande

    November 21, 2023 at 8:50 pm

    Heck of a job, Jesse.

    Thank you for putting in the work.


  • Richard Russell

    November 22, 2023 at 2:19 pm

    Say what you like: some politicians, especially those supported by special interest groups turn out to be just that: shills for the special interest groups who fund and support them – Surprise, Surprise! All praise to Punta Gorda for voting in someone, not of the good ole boy network (Congratulations to Newly elected City Council Woman Debi Lux on her landslide victory)

Comments are closed.


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