The Magic City shocker: Newcomers unseat incumbent “Miami Mafia” commissioners

Candidates backed by real estate heavyweights upset in two key districts

Miami City Incumbent Commissioners Lose to Newcomers

From left: Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Miguel Gabela, Damian Pardo and Sabina Covo (Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal with Getty, Facebook/Miguel Angel Gabela For Miami City Commission District 1, and Damian Pardo for Miami City Commission)

In a seismic upset, auto parts dealer Miguel Gabela and financial planner Damian Pardo beat two incumbent Miami city commissioners in Tuesday’s runoff. Voters in the city’s District 1 and District 2 races gave Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Sabina Covo the boot. 

Diaz de la Portilla is a firebrand Republican who was suspended from his District 1 seat by Gov. Ron DeSantis following his arrest on public corruption charges in September. Covo, a Democrat who billed herself as an anti-corruption fighter, had won a special election in February to serve the final nine months of her predecessor Ken Russell’s second term. 

Both of them received substantial campaign contributions from Miami real estate heavyweights including Miami-based NR Investments, led by principals Ron Gottesmann and Nir Shoshani;  Neology Life Development Group, led by CEO Lissette Calderon; Miami-based CMC Group, led by CEO Ugo Colombo; Miami-based Crescent Heights, led by managing principal Russell Galbut ($10,000) and developer Michael Swerdlow.

Diaz de la Portilla and Covo claimed first place in Miami’s Nov. 8 city election, but they failed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff. Over the last two weeks, Gabela and Pardo, who will be Miami’s first openly gay elected official, ran as reformers who will fight to clean up Miami City Hall, which has been engulfed in controversies and scandals involving Diaz de la Portilla, Commissioner Joe Carollo and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Diaz de la Portilla has pleaded not guilty to multiple felony charges including bribery and official misconduct for allegedly accepting and laundering illegal campaign contributions from Miami Beach power couple Leila and David Centner. In exchange, Diaz de la Portilla allegedly orchestrated a no-bid deal for the Centners to take over a public park and build a $10 million recreation center adjacent to one of their Centner Academy school buildings.

In June, a Fort Lauderdale federal jury found Carollo guilty of violating the rights of Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla, two developers who are the largest landowners in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Jurors hit Carollo with $63 million in damages for his alleged campaign of retaliation against Fuller and Pinilla by directing city staff to target their properties and businesses for code violations since 2017 because the pair supported a political opponent.

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Suarez is caught in the crosshairs of a state ethics investigation probing his alleged acceptance of free tickets to high-profile, expensive events including a VIP party at a Formula One race in Miami as a guest of hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin. Suarez and Griffin have denied the allegation, and both of them have said the mayor paid for his tickets.

The mayor is also under criminal investigation into his previously undisclosed gig as a private consultant for Location Ventures, an embattled Coral Gables-based development firm that has an unfinished co-living and co-working project in Coconut Grove. 

In the lead up to the runoff, Covo was also ensnared in allegations of pay-to-play politics. On the podcast Because Miami hosted by documentarian Billy Corben, one of her former political opponents James Torres said that Covo offered to give him a $120,000 a year city job if he endorsed her. Covo denied the allegation. 

After Gabela and Pardo were declared the winners on Tuesday night, Corben celebrated the results on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Today was a major win for the people of Miami and a devastating loss for the Miami Mafia,” Corben wrote. “Congratulations to newly elected commissioners Damian Pardo and Miguel Gabela for defeating corruption!”