While this year marked the first time he ran for elected office, Commissioner-elect Damián Pardo was far from a political neophyte when he launched his candidacy in Miami this year.
Pardo’s victory in the runoff for the City Commission’s District 2 seat was historic. He became the first openly gay person elected in Miami, a milestone he calls a “great footnote to show how far we’ve come.”
But his win Nov. 21 was also one of the biggest upsets in recent memory in the city, which has attracted no shortage of negative attention as corruption charges pile up against several public officials.
Sabina Covo, the incumbent Commissioner Pardo unseated last week, had ample advantage heading into Election Day. She had roughly three times the amount of campaign cash, much of it from developers, vendors and other entities with interests in the city.
She also enjoyed endorsements from established Democratic officials like Rep. Ashley Gantt, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, among others.
Pardo, a fellow Democrat, ran a mostly self-funded campaign with far fewer high-profile backers. What outside money he did accept came from friends, family and others with whom he’d fostered personal connections during his decades of civic activism.
To win, Pardo needed to be more nimble, efficient and attentive than his opponent.
“A lot of the same tactics I used in my advocacy work applied to my campaign, as far as being driven by a grassroots effort with key community leaders and influencers building a coalition,” he said. “And frankly, I did a wonderful thing in choosing the right consultant with the right strategy.”
That consultant was Alex Miranda, a Miami Beach-based operative and former political director for the Florida GOP known mostly for his work on Republican campaigns.
Miranda called Pardo’s campaign the best he’s worked on in his career. Part of that, he said, came from lessons he learned working on the campaign of former Judge Martin Zilber, one of a dozen candidates Covo defeated in a February Special Election for a nine-month stint in the District 2 seat.
A major tweak Miranda made in his approach to Pardo’s campaign was eschewing traditional TV and radio advertising. Instead, the team focused only on targeted digital media, mailers, texts and old-fashioned door-knocking.
The decision to forgo comparatively pricier airwave-based promotion was the result of two observations. First, Pardo’s smaller war chest meant he’d be disadvantaged in the media regardless of how much he spent. But far more important, Miranda said, was the fact that the coverage zones for cable carriers like Comcast did not properly overlap with District 2, which spans the city’s coastal Brickell, Coconut Grove, Downtown, Edgewater and Morningside neighborhoods.
That meant any TV ads Pardo bought would needlessly be shown to residents outside the district who couldn’t vote on Election Day if they wanted to — while also missing many prospective voters who could.
“When you’re buying cable for quote-unquote District 2, the amount of spillover outside it almost makes the dollars you spend irrelevant,” Miranda said. “You may be speaking to District 2, but you’re also speaking to District 1, District 3 and District 5. It just doesn’t make sense from a spending perspective.”
Pardo’s grassroots bona fides proved invaluable as well. Miranda estimates the candidate lost 35 pounds in Miami’s notoriously humid heat while visiting residents at home, waving signs and hosting community meet-and-greets.
That aspect of the campaign was critical and set him apart from Covo and five other candidates the pair outpaced in the city’s General Election on Nov. 7.
“We tried to make more engagements, more impressions at the door,” he said. “As we got closer to both the General and runoff elections, people would often say, ‘Wow, you know, you came to my door several times and we talked about this — do you remember me?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I remember you, your house, our conversation.’ That was a key to success.”
It reflected a truism overlooked at perilous expense, Miranda said. “Especially in local elections, money doesn’t buy love, and money is not going to earn you a win,” he said. “You have to put in the work, the time and face-to-face voter contact. Covo spent $800,000, and by any other standard she should have won. But we put in the hard work.”
Running a more agile operation enabled the Pardo campaign to overcome deficits in size and wherewithal, and the confidence the team had that it could outmaneuver the incumbent manifested no more impactfully than on the night of the General Election.
After the race resulted in a runoff, an outcome Pardo’s campaign anticipated, Miranda’s eponymous consulting firm had mailers and digital ads ready to go the same night.
“I think we caught the Covo camp completely off guard,” Miranda said. “We were landing a mail piece every two days up to the runoff.”
Voters may also have been ready for a change, even after just nine months of having Covo in office. She ran in February on a promise to combat corruption at City Hall, where numerous officials are now under investigation for misusing their positions for personal benefit or vendetta.
By the time voters went to the ballot box last week, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Commissioner Joe Carollo, now-former Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla, City Manager Art Noriega and Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez faced lawsuits, federal probes or state investigations.
Covo did little to address those issues. And in the leadup to this month’s elections, she accepted campaign contributions from many of same donors that gave to Díaz de la Portilla, whom state law enforcement agents arrested in September on bribery, money laundering and criminal conspiracy charges.
Rather than being part of the solution, Miranda said, she became part of the problem.
“She was complicit, working with Díaz de la Portilla, Carollo — you name it — to save her skin and get re-elected despite not having any real accomplishment while in office,” he said.
Pardo, a certified financial planner in private life, said he hopes his triumph inspires others in the activism space to seek public office, regardless of what naysayers may tell them.
As word spread among political insiders that he was mulling a run in District 2, Pardo said a certain powerful local player he declined to name reached out to dissuade him from entering the fray.
“The first thing out of their mouth was, ‘You really shouldn’t do this because grassroots activists, they make horrible candidates,’” he said. “I’m telling you this because I actually think grassroots activists make great candidates and that the people already in that space, who have these experiences for all the right reasons, are great people to run.
“You don’t have to worry about their motivation. My motivation for 35 years was never about the money I made. It was the opposite. It was about the money I gave and the time, passion and commitment I dedicated to whatever I was working on. Every municipality, every government, needs more people whose motivations are clear. It’s not about the money or the next job or title they want to get to; it’s about serving the community.”