A Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge has ruled that auto parts retailer Miguel Gabela is a qualified candidate in the city of Miami’s District 1 election.
During a virtual hearing Wednesday, Judge Pedro Echarte ruled in favor of Gabela, who is suing the city after commissioners redrew district boundaries in June in a way that excluded Gabela’s longtime home from District 1. He had run for commission before in that district and had been campaigning since February this year. The new map was approved by commissioners following a federal court order as part of a separate lawsuit challenging the city’s voting map as unconstitutional.
Miami’s city charter requires candidates to live inside the district they wish to represent for at least one year before qualifying, and the legal battle over redistricting spurred questions about how to apply that standard in Gabela’s case.
Gabela says that in order to avoid any issues, he moved into the new District 1 in August, occupying the upstairs apartment of a duplex he owns on Northwest 21st Terrace. The duplex is fewer than two miles away from his longtime home near Sewell Park, which is now in District 3. He said he moved a few days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city should use the June map for this year’s city elections.
The pending federal redistricting case did not appear to be a factor in the judge’s analysis, according to his comments in court. Instead, he focused on Gabela’s actions and intentions before and after commissioners on June 14 approved a voting map on that excluded Gabela’s house. Gabela spoke during that public meeting, advocating against the exclusion of his home.
Judge: ‘You guys moved the lines on him’
During Wednesday’s hearing, city attorneys argued that Gabela had time between the map’s approval and the day the vote was finalized, June 29, to move so that he could prevent a gap in his residency in District 1.
“If he would’ve moved in a couple of weeks before the resolution was finalized, he would’ve been compliant with the new District 1 and the old District 1,” said City Attorney Victoria Méndez.
Even before he ruled, Echarte spoke critically of the city’s position. He emphasized that Gabela did nothing to remove himself from District 1, he only made efforts to be a District 1 resident, and he moved to the new district within a reasonable amount of time.
“He didn’t move out,” Echarte said. “You guys moved the lines on him.”
Following Echarte’s ruling, Gabela’s candidacy is confirmed for the Nov. 7 election. He is challenging incumbent Alex Díaz de la Portilla, who was suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis after he was arrested on corruption charges. Other District 1 candidates include retired Miami police officer Francisco Pichel, Miami-Dade County employee Mercedes Librada Rodriguez and local investor Marvin Tapia.
Following Díaz de la Portilla’s suspension, the other four commissioners voted to leave the District 1 seat unfilled until the November election.
More legal action still unresolved
After the hearing, Gabela’s attorney, J.C. Planas, told the Herald he was “aghast” at city officials’ actions in the case.
“The fact that a city would seek to disqualify one of its residents when they purposefully carved [him] out of his own district is just the most anti-democratic thing I have ever seen,” Planas said.
After the ruling, Méndez said her office was “in the process of reviewing the ramifications of the Court’s Order with respect to residency requirements in the City of Miami.”
The ruling does not fully resolve Gabela’s case. He is still suing over the exclusion of his longtime home near Sewell Park.
The separate federal redistricting case is still ongoing. The current voting map is considered a temporary solution for this year’s election. The case is expected to go to trial in early 2024.