Miami Beach mayor’s race shaping up to be heavyweight match between old and new blood

In the race to be elected mayor of Miami Beach, it’s a case of old versus new — with a twist.

Dan Gelber, a former heavyweight in the Florida Legislature, wants in at Miami Beach City Hall for the first time. Michael Grieco, a well-known one-term commissioner with a back-to-basics message, wants to ascend.

The race opened up in January after Mayor Philip Levine decided not run for a third two-year term as mayor. The deadline to file is several months away, but so far, these two are the only players. Grieco and Gelber have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, which could scare off any other potential candidates.

But even though Gelber, 56, carries hefty Tallahassee experience, history as a federal prosecutor and a respected surname — his father, Seymour Gelber, was Beach mayor in the 1990s — he’ll have to put in more mileage with voters in the barrier island’s ever-evolving population.

“There’s a lot of new people here,” Gelber said on a recent afternoon as he knocked on doors in Middle Beach to meet voters.

Beach voters can expect from Gelber the typical retail politics of attending every neighborhood association meeting, PTA meeting and the like. That’s the kind of legwork that Grieco already put in during his 2013 campaign and throughout his term as commissioner.

He’s cramming for a test I’ve been taking for four years. Michael Grieco, on Dan Gelber’s campaign

Grieco, 41, a former state prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney, has taken stances on recent high-profile issues that were popular with many residents. He opposed aerial spraying of a controversial insecticide during the Zika outbreak in the fall, when angry voters packed City Hall, crying out against spraying. After initially supporting plans for a light rail loop in South Beach, he changed his mind after public opposition grew. He now says rail should never be placed on the Beach’s streets.

He’s also introduced initiatives embraced by environmentalists, like a ban on the sale of polystyrene in the city.

This has made Grieco a familiar face for many residents. He likely has more name recognition on the municipal level. This point is not lost on Gelber, who has been out of politics since he lost a 2010 bid for Florida attorney general to Pam Bondi.

On Sunday morning, he was going door to door to meet voters.

“I haven’t been in office in a couple years,” he said with a chuckle, as he clutched a clipboard with a list of constituents in the neighborhood — some familiar names, others not.

On one street, Gelber talked to a mix of old friends and people who didn’t know him. One asked for a yard sign after noting he’d voted for Gelber’s father more than 20 years ago.

Municipal elections are on Nov. 7.

For the younger Gelber, who has no municipal government experience, walking the Beach’s neighborhoods is the homework necessary for a long campaign before the election Nov. 7.

“I think canvassing is the best way to learn the mosaic of the city,” he said. “It’s about talking to people about the issues.”

Gelber is often asked about his vision for Miami Beach. He’s forming that as he walks the neighborhoods, he said, but he says that the traffic problem is paramount for voters. Other topics he’s hearing about: the threat of sea rise and the need to strike a balance between residents who want to preserve the character of their neighborhoods and real estate developers eager to cash in on valuable land.

Meanwhile, Grieco is not walking yet but probably has an initial incumbent advantage. He commands a strong presence on social media and considers himself a “pothole commissioner” — someone who will address issues for individual constituents and answer late-night text messages.

“When I start knocking on doors, it’s not going to be to introduce myself,” he told the Miami Herald.

Grieco is preaching a gospel of simplicity in government. Make sure public streets and parks are clean, safe and comfortable. Make the mayor’s office accessible.

Both men are Democrats in a progressive city with looming issues including the impact of tidal flooding as sea levels rise, worsening traffic congestion and a widening income gap.

I don’t think the train is in the tea leaves. Dan Gelber, on the idea of light rail in South Beach

They are vying for a spot on a nonpartisan commission where the difference between the mayor and commissioners is largely ceremonial. The mayor is one of seven votes and serves as chairman of city meetings. The mayor serves two-year terms, and commissioners serve four-year terms.

But part of the job is whatever the individual makes of it. Levine has used the office to promote the image of the city (and himself) locally and nationally, whether touting anti-flooding projects, introducing world-famous musicians at the city’s centennial concert or defending his opinion that the Beach could one day play host to a Cuban consulate.

There’s an allure to being the figurehead and an agenda-setter in a city that is Miami-Dade’s fourth-most populous and a crucial engine for the region’s tourism economy. Still, both Gelber and Grieco sound like they would rather shift the focus back to the local bread-and-butter work of City Hall.

“I think the number one job of the mayor is constituent casework,” Grieco said.

Gelber has fielded questions about a mayoral bid in the past, but said it wasn’t until November that he started thinking seriously about it. Following a caustic and divisive presidential election, he says he wanted to get involved to help restore the public’s faith in government.

He believes part of the mayor’s job is to set the tone for the City Commission and establish an honest and thoughtful public process for making decisions.

“I wouldn’t want this job if it were only cutting ribbons,” he said.

In the Beach’s chattering political class, alliances are beginning to form. Outgoing commissioner Joy Malakoff has already endorsed Gelber, marking somewhat of a departure from the wave of change that carried her, Grieco and Levine into office together in 2013 — all political newbies at the time. As candidates, they shared a political consultant and agreed on several key city issues, including the urgency to address tidal flooding and a different approach to renovating the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The three have differed on some issues since then, so while Malakoff’s support for Gelber may have surprised some political onlookers, her endorsement isn’t shocking — especially considering her long familiarity with the Gelber family.

Malakoff told the Herald she’s known the Gelbers for decades, including the former mayor and his wife Edith, who taught Malakoff’s children at Miami Beach Senior High School. She said she believes Gelber would be a collegial leader who would build consensus on the dais.

“I think Dan is the better candidate,” she said. “I think Dan will bring an element of change and fresh air to the commission.”

Former commissioners Ed Tobin and Nancy Liebman have also endorsed Gelber.

I’m friendly with Dan. I’ve known him for years. Michael Grieco

Grieco said he has endorsements, but he declined to share them with the Herald. He downplayed the value of endorsements. “Endorsements don’t vote except for the endorsers themselves,” he said. “My outgoing colleague can endorse who she wants.”

He originally filed to run for his seat on the commission, but he switched gears to run for mayor in January after Levine, considering a run for governor, announced he would forgo a third term.

Grieco, who has been fundraising since last summer, has amassed $410,620, including $40,000 of his own money, his most recent campaign finance reports show.

After one month of fundraising, Gelber has taken in $220,435.