In July, as campaign season was starting to ramp up in Miami Beach, the city hosted a summer bash for seniors at the Miami Beach Convention Center. While hundreds of seniors were treated to a night of free food and entertainment, candidates for Miami Beach mayor and city commission were out in force, handing out flyers and branded tote bags, fans, coffee mugs, candy and face cream.
Tanya Bhatt, a first-time candidate for city commission, said she quickly realized on the campaign trail that she needed to give away more than just flyers if she wanted to keep up. She had branded pens created to distribute to senior voters.
“There’s a live band in a room full of 800 people. That’s not conducive to talking about the issues,” Bhatt said. “That is not a way for voters to learn about candidates and what they stand for.”
The blitz to court Miami Beach senior voters — widely seen as the most reliable voting bloc in a city where just a handful of votes can swing a low-turnout race — has only ratcheted up as the Nov. 7 election approaches. Candidates have jostled for access to senior housing centers, hosted lavish parties for seniors at local restaurants, and mobilized to help people fill out their mail ballots and transport them to the polls during early voting.
Along the way, the process has been riddled with drama and accusations of unethical behavior — as has become the norm in Miami Beach elections.
“They’re tricking the old people here to vote for them,” said Luis Molina, 66, a resident of Federation Towers, a low-income senior housing complex on West Avenue. He said the fancy events and gifts make him uncomfortable. “It seems to me like they are buying votes,” Molina said.
Others don’t mind the approach.
Santa Jimenez, 78, who lives at Council Towers North on Collins Avenue, said seniors enjoy going to campaign events because they are usually “encerrados” — cooped up — in their homes. At the events, she said, “we have the opportunity to socialize with everyone.”
Lazaro Mesadias, another Federation Towers resident, said he and his wife Candida have gone to various events put on by candidates, including a party at Mango’s Tropical Cafe hosted by Michael Gongora’s mayoral campaign and a meal at a Greek restaurant hosted by Bill Roedy’s mayoral campaign. (The Roedy event featured live belly dancers.)
Mesadias, 77, said he likes the events because he gets a chance to hear from the candidates about their platforms. He said he doesn’t mind the free food and other party favors, either.
Still, he said, he can’t be sure if the candidates will provide seniors the same level of attention once they take office.
“Maybe they give away these things because they want my vote, and maybe they’ll forget about us later,” Mesadias said. “They promise and promise, but when it comes to actual results, we’ll see what happens.”
Julio Aguila, 84, said workers for one of the campaigns had recently visited his apartment at Federation Towers and helped him fill out his ballot.
Aguila said he completed the ballot himself, but that the workers helped him make sure he chose the candidates he preferred, properly signed the ballot and placed it in the required envelope. The workers then took the ballot with them to drop in the mail, he said.
“There wasn’t anything shady,” Aguila said. “Everything was clear.”
Florida law says people can return up to two mail ballots per election in addition to their own and a ballot belonging to an immediate family member.
The ‘queen maker’
About 26% of active registered voters in Miami Beach are 66 years old or older, according to data published by the Miami-Dade elections department.
Many of the whispers about tactics deployed to win their votes in Miami Beach, particularly in the Hispanic community, center on campaign worker Liliana Martinez, who has been described as a “queen maker” in securing votes for the candidates who hire her.
In this year’s election, Martinez represents one candidate in each of the four races — one for mayor and three for commissioner — and has been paid more than $72,000 in total by their campaigns, according to financial reports.
Martinez says she hires “captains” who live in senior housing and help ensure voters are filling out their mail ballots, going to the polls and supporting Martinez’s preferred candidates. During early voting, signs inside several seniors housing complexes advertise numbers to call for rides to the polls.
Martinez told the Miami Herald she pays seniors in cash out of her own pocket to assist her with various campaign-related tasks, like putting up flyers, knocking on doors, setting up for events, or even helping to carry a cooler that’s too heavy. Martinez said she typically pays $30 to $50 for the help.
“The seniors just need work,” Martinez said. “I try to help them.”
Not all of the money Martinez distributes seems to appear on campaign finance reports. That makes it hard to know exactly what she’s doing — including for some of the political consultants who work on her candidates’ campaigns.
“I don’t know if she pays five people or 150 people. There’s no accountability,” said one political consultant working for a Martinez-backed candidate. The consultant requested anonymity to speak candidly. “But she has people convinced she’s got some secret sauce and can deliver 1,000 to 2,000 votes you otherwise can’t get.”
The fight for building access
Martinez’s detractors say she tries to ensure only her candidates can access senior centers, giving them an edge to knock on doors and get in front of voters.
Bhatt said that when an employee at the Four Freedoms senior housing tower invited her to host an event for residents there, it was sparsely attended. Afterward, she said, two attendees told her Martinez’s captains in the building had told them not to go. Martinez is working for Bhatt’s opponent, Andres Asion.
Bhatt said she hasn’t tried entering senior housing since.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be in a situation where people were being told who they could or could not speak to to get informed about candidates.”
Martinez says she doesn’t have the power some claim she does.
“I’m not deciding anything about who’s going in or who’s not going in because I’m not the manager in any building,” she said. “I have to go in each senior center to get a permit.”
Roedy, the candidate for mayor who has spent more than $2 million in his first run for political office, said he heard early in the campaign that one of his opponents had access to senior housing “all locked up.” But he said that hasn’t been his experience, in part because he hired Hispanic, Spanish-speaking campaign workers from the community.
Roedy said his team brings boxed lunches and ice cream into the buildings.
“You vote however you want. I just want to hear your stories,” Roedy said he tells seniors. “When I’m mayor, I’m going to continue that relationship.”
Despite the attention showered on senior voters, Martinez said she has been disappointed in how some candidates seem to forget about the population after campaign season ends.
For that reason, she said, this could be the last campaign cycle she works in Miami Beach.
“They don’t do anything when the elections finish,” she said.