Miami could elect its first openly-gay city commissioner in District 2 runoff race

Miami City Commission District 2 candidates Damian Pardo and incumbent Sabina Covo.

After leading the pack in an eight-way City Commission race last week but falling short of a majority win, incumbent Sabina Covo faces a challenge from a candidate who would be the city’s first openly-gay commissioner in a runoff race to represent Miami’s District 2.

Voters on Tuesday will decide between Covo, a former journalist who’s seeking her first four-year term on the commission after winning a special election in February, and Damian Pardo, a certified financial planner with a history of activism.

Covo, 44, told the Herald that she’s feeling “very confident” heading into Tuesday. Last week, she led in the general election with 39.3% of the vote, followed by Pardo with 26.4%.

“I think the 40% against seven candidates actually shows that the majority of District 2 is actually appreciating our work,” Covo said, “and that’s why I think that on Tuesday we’re going to win.”

READ MORE: Challengers seek to disrupt District 2 Miami Commissioner Sabina Covo’s reelection bid

Early voting is Friday through Sunday.

LGBTQ issues

If elected, Pardo, 60, would be the first openly-gay commissioner in the city of Miami.

“I’m from a generation where that was not possible,” said Pardo, who came out during the era of Anita Bryant, an anti-gay activist who gained national prominence in the 1970s.

“And then, coming on the heels of that, was AIDS,” Pardo said. “We were basically told, ‘You don’t deserve to be here, God is judging you, and you’re going to die.’... So for me, the idea that I could run and be elected is so glorious.”

His advocacy work includes serving on the board for the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Care Resource, which is an AIDS service organization, as well as SAGE, a national organization for elders in the LGBTQ community.

Pardo was among the founders of the LGBTQ civil rights organization, SAVE, or Safeguarding American Values for Everyone. He served as a board member from 1993 to 1997, after which he continued volunteering for the organization.

Despite Pardo’s extensive history with the organization, SAVE endorsed Covo in this race.

Reached by email, SAVE’s executive director, Todd Delmay, said that during its research, the organization’s endorsement panel found “troubling support” by Pardo for the Parental Rights in Education bill, known colloquially as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and that Pardo was “unable to adequately defend his positions” in an endorsement interview.

Delmay pointed the Herald to a February 2022 meeting of the city’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Board. The meeting minutes, which are sparse, reflect that Pardo called the bill a “political ploy” and said that “we may miss an opportunity to express the values they want to be fostered at home.” Later in the meeting, the board voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing the Parental Rights in Education bill, according to the minutes. The city does not have a recording of the meeting.

“Never in my life have I taken a position against any LGBTQ issue that helps the community or the community is backing,” Pardo said. “That would be contrary to my entire life.”

Pardo said he adamantly opposes the bill, and that he made comments during the meeting cautioning against jumping on a hot-button political issue without being strategic about the board’s messaging. He told the Herald that much of the Miami City Commission leans conservative, and that it would be “irresponsible” to put a resolution before them that could easily be voted down.

A week after the advisory board meeting, the City Commission voted down a resolution opposing the Parental Rights in Education bill 4-1.

“You can’t just throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks,” Pardo said.

Asked why she thinks SAVE endorsed her over Pardo, Covo said she’s been an advocate for the organization “since the beginning.”

It’s also worth noting that Covo’s campaign consultant, Christian Ulvert, was the chair of SAVE Dade from 2009 to 2015. Ulvert said he no longer is involved with the organization and that he had zero role in the endorsement process. Delmay said it is “false and scurrilous” to suggest otherwise.

Campaign finance and corruption

Some critics consider Covo, who has raised over $237,000 in campaign contributions, to be an establishment pick — a characterization that the incumbent says is incorrect.

“I am completely independent,” she said, adding that she will not be influenced by campaign contributions.

Pardo has raised about $90,000, according to the most recently-available campaign finance reports from early November, but he’s also heavily funding his campaign with his own money, having loaned himself over $165,000.

“Either I pony up and I put my money where my mouth is and I’m committed to really trying to make this change happen,” he said, “or I’m at the whim of special interest developers and lobbyists.”

Covo previously told the Herald that she wants to introduce reform in the city that would restrict who can contribute to campaigns. She now describes a plan that involves bringing on an inspector general, similar to that of Miami Beach, who will independently audit different agencies but not be focused on campaign finance. She also suggested that Miami elected officials have stricter financial disclosure requirements akin to what the Federal Election Commission requires of presidential candidates.

Covo and Pardo expressed concern about corruption in City Hall, with both agreeing that Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla, who was arrested in September on corruption charges, should remain suspended if he is reelected on Tuesday in the runoff for District 1. Covo said the suspension should remain in effect “indefinitely,” even if the charges are dropped.

“As a commissioner, I’m not above the law,” she said.

Mayor Francis Suarez has also been under scrutiny this year after a buffet of side-gigs were revealed through an FEC disclosure filed as part of his presidential campaign, as well as a lawsuit that said Suarez worked as a $10,000 a month consultant for embattled developer Rishi Kapoor.

“Francis would never have been in the situation had we had guardrails,” Pardo said.