Dominguez wins Miami Beach commission runoff to succeed her late partner Samuelian

Laura Dominguez will succeed her life partner, the late Mark Samuelian, on the Miami Beach City Commission after winning a runoff election Tuesday.

Dominguez defeated disability-rights advocate Sabrina Cohen to win the seat, according to unofficial results posted Tuesday evening by the Miami-Dade elections department. Dominguez had over 61% of votes with all ballots reported.

Voter turnout was around 17% with more than 8,700 ballots cast.

Dominguez will be sworn in Monday.

“I am honored to be able to continue Mark Samuelian’s legacy of residents first leadership,” Dominguez said in a statement. “I intend to be a unifier and a voice for good government.”

The election was triggered by Samuelian’s death from an illness in June at age 58. Dominguez, a digital marketing professional who had previously served as Samuelian’s campaign manager and treasurer, said shortly after Samuelian’s death that she would consider running for the seat and filed to do so after the commission agreed to hold an election, rather than appoint a temporary replacement until 2023.

Dominguez, 51, will serve the remainder of Samuelian’s term, which ends in November 2025.

Her election will affect the balance of power on the Miami Beach City Commission, which has found itself in a 3-3 deadlock on some recent issues — including, initially, whether to elect or appoint Samuelian’s successor. Mayor Dan Gelber, along with Commissioners Ricky Arriola and David Richardson, supported Cohen; meanwhile, Commissioners Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Alex Fernandez endorsed Dominguez.

Steven Meiner didn’t endorse either candidate.

On her campaign website, Dominguez wrote that Samuelian’s passing “inspired me to step forward to help the city I love and respect.”

“While no one can ever replace Mark, I am the best choice to move his ‘residents first’ platform forward,” Dominguez wrote. “Mark and I did not agree on every single issue, but we were aligned on what matters most — keeping our city safe, resilient, and clean.”

The late Miami Beach Commissioner Mark Samuelian, left, is photographed with his life partner Laura Dominguez, who won an election to fill Samuelian’s seat.
The late Miami Beach Commissioner Mark Samuelian, left, is photographed with his life partner Laura Dominguez, who won an election to fill Samuelian’s seat.

Gelber told the Miami Herald Tuesday evening that, despite endorsing Cohen, he believes Dominguez will be “a wonderful commissioner.”

“And she’ll have the added advantage of really carrying on the legacy of another fine commissioner,” he said.

Dominguez and Cohen, 44, advanced to a runoff after neither secured more than 50% of votes on Nov. 8. In that five-person race, Dominguez got 41% of votes and Cohen got 31%. They defeated hotel owner Mitch Novick, investor Stephen Cohen and environmental scientist Isaiah Mosley.

Dominguez serves on the board of her neighborhood association in Belle Isle and is a member of community groups Miami Beach United and the Miami Design Preservation League.

She is Cuban-American and was born in Miami-Dade County, according to her campaign website. At a memorial service for Samuelian, she recalled how the Massachusetts-born Samuelian learned Spanish to better connect with her Cuban family.

Dominguez’s campaign raised over $400,000, according to financial reports, including $200,000 of her own money. Dominguez also solicited contributions to a PAC, Coastal Communities Matter, that raised over $65,000.

Leading up to Tuesday’s runoff, Dominguez and Cohen sought to highlight their political differences. Dominguez criticized Cohen for supporting Nov. 8 ballot questions that residents rejected — a building size increase at the former Deauville Beach Resort and two 99-year lease agreements for office space near Lincoln Road.

A recent mailer funded by Coastal Communities Matter attacked Cohen as a “pawn of developers.”

Cohen emphasized her support for moving last call for alcohol from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. at most bars and clubs citywide, an initiative pushed by Gelber and approved by a majority of voters in a non-binding referendum last year.

Dominguez has said she supports a 2 a.m. alcohol cutoff in residential areas, but says some exceptions should be made. Debate around the issue has centered on raucous Ocean Drive, where businesses like the Clevelander and Mango’s Tropical Cafe have fought to maintain the 5 a.m. cutoff.

The city commission is likely to take up the last call issue soon, now that all seven elected seats are filled. Earlier this year, commissioners floated several different approaches to last call but didn’t reach a final consensus. A judge’s ruling last year means five-sevenths support may be required to make any changes.

The addition of Dominguez to the dais also likely means a new ally for Rosen Gonzalez, the staunchest political rival of Gelber, who blasted the mayor in a recent email to residents for campaigning against Samuelian’s life partner.

Dominguez is a registered Democrat who will serve in a non-partisan role.

She has emphasized public safety and increased police presence as a priority, and said she agrees with Gelber’s goal of tamping down the city’s party atmosphere and transforming South Beach into more of an “arts and culture” district.

Cohen, a Realtor, created the nonprofit Sabrina Cohen Foundation, which has partnered with the city and local leaders to improve accessibility in Miami Beach and is hoping to build an adaptive recreation center for people with mobility challenges. The city commission agreed last year to match up to $2.5 million in donations for the center.

The nonprofit also hosts adaptive beach days, a program that helps people with disabilities visit the beach and enjoy the ocean. The proposed three-story wellness center on donated city land would house equipment for the beach program and feature an adaptive gym, rooftop pool and robotics lab.

Sabrina Cohen
Sabrina Cohen

Cohen’s role with the nonprofit was a source of friction during the campaign as Dominguez and Rosen Gonzalez raised questions about a potential conflict of interest, given that the foundation has received support from several local developers.

Cohen said she would follow the city attorney’s direction if elected, including by recusing herself from votes or divesting any interests in the foundation if necessary.