Most of the region’s big stories have cliffhangers for 2023.
There is never a dull moment, much less a dull year, in South Florida politics. And 2022 was no exception.
Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties were host to numerous happenings that drew national headlines and the celebration — or consternation — of residents and outsiders alike.
Paring down the most impactful stories to a definitive “Top 10” was a tough undertaking and hardly scientific, but we think you’ll agree the list below spotlights the especially high (and low) points of the year.
Let us know if you agree in the comments.
10. Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony faces ethics issues.
This might be the most awkward of personnel conundrums for Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2023: Should he suspend the Broward County Sheriff he appointed for not revealing a past fatal shooting, or just wait until voters have their say in 2024?
Sheriff Gregory Tony did not disclose on his law enforcement applications that he was arrested in a fatal shooting while he was a juvenile living in Philadelphia. He was tried and found not guilty, but that information has put Broward County’s first Black Sheriff in the crosshairs of two complaints with the state Commission on Ethics. The panel has already found “probable cause” Tony lied and misused his position by checking “no” to the question of whether he had ever been arrested. The Commission also found probable cause Tony lied by saying his driver’s license had not been revoked, suspended or denied in any state when he renewed his state law enforcement driver’s license. He also likely failed to disclose past drug use and traffic violations, state records say.
One complaint was a referral from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The other came from a former captain with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, who supported the previous Sheriff in the 2020 election and was offered the choice to resign or be fired after the election.
Tony was appointed to succeed Sheriff Scott Israel after DeSantis removed Israel from office in the wake of deputies’ poor performance during the Parkland shooting. He subsequently won election in his own right in 2020. But his past has come back to haunt him.
He now has two choices. He can either go for a hearing in front of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, which then goes back to the Ethics Commission, or enter into a stipulated agreement with the state Ethics Commission.
Whether he hangs on to his job running the largest law enforcement department in the state is one of the cliffhangers of 2022.
9. Joe Martinez booked on felony charges, removed from office.
Speaking of Sheriffs … It was one of the worst-kept secrets in South Florida politics: Joe Martinez, who was set to be the senior member of the Miami-Dade Commission and widely considered a shoo-in as its Chair, was eying a run for Sheriff in 2024.
A decorated former police lieutenant, Martinez was atop a shortlist of potential candidates for the Sheriff job, which was returning to the county as an elected office for the first time in almost 125 years, in accordance with voters’ wishes.
Those aspirations came to a halt Aug. 30, when authorities booked him on felony charges of unlawful compensation punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The charges stemmed from a five-year investigation by the county Inspector General’s Office and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. They allege Martinez accepted $15,000 from local business owners in exchange for sponsoring legislation that would eliminate fines they faced for improper storage container use.
Martinez indeed filed such an ordinance in August 2017 but quickly pulled it from consideration. He has denied all wrongdoing, pleaded not guilty and asserted the case is “politically motivated.”
Martinez said the money, which he accepted in late 2016 and early 2017, was a carry-over payment for private consulting work he did prior to his election to the County Commission in August 2016.
Less than a month after Martinez turned himself in for an hours-long stay in jail, the Governor suspended him. DeSantis replaced him two months later with Roberto Gonzalez, a Republican personal injury lawyer and former Miami-Dade GOP Executive Committee member who placed second in a Primary this year for House District 119.
Martinez’s trial is set for April 17.
8. Miami approves $1 billion soccer complex with David Beckham group.
After years of anticipation, Miami Commissioners in late April approved the terms of a massive deal to transform the city’s largest greenspace into a sprawling soccer stadium complex called Miami Freedom Park.
Commissioners voted 4-1 for the no-bid agreement with billionaire Jorge Mas and retired footballer David Beckham, who with other partners own Miami’s Major League Soccer team, Inter Miami CF.
The deal includes a 99-year lease starting at $4.3 million annually for 73 redeveloped acres on Miami’s public Melreese golf course. Project parts include a 25,000-seat stadium, more than 1 million square feet of commercial and office space, 750 hotel rooms, a parking structure with rooftop recreation fields and 58 acres of parkland.
Mas estimated the team will spend $1.3 billion to build the complex and remediate 131 acres of contaminated soil in and around the project site. The deal also requires Freedom Park employees to be paid at least $18 an hour and a verbal agreement, requested by Commission Chair Christine King, that Inter Miami prioritize local hires, work to employ rehabilitated ex-convicts and guarantee a percentage of business opportunities go to minority-owned companies.
Several prominent voices opposed the project. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said officials shouldn’t sign off on anything until they receive more input from the public. Documentary filmmaker Billy Corben released a video featuring infamous former Marlins President David Sampson bashing the deal, which he called a “billion-dollar heist” that does nothing to address skyrocketing housing costs.
7. Miami-Dade Commission overrides Mayor’s veto to move development boundary for first time in a decade.
Debate over a massive development on land previously guarded against construction wasn’t unique to Miami.
On Nov. 15, Miami-Dade Commissioners disregarded Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s plea for conservation by overriding her veto of legislation expanding the Urban Development Boundary (UDB) that protects agricultural areas and vulnerable wetlands, including the Everglades, from construction.
The move, approved by an 8-4 vote, marked the first expansion of the boundary in nearly a decade and will allow a 379-acre industrial complex called the South Dade Logistics & Industrial District to rise on farmland just west of Biscayne Bay in Homestead.
Proponents of the largely undefined project pointed to its employment potential, which they say could create anywhere from 7,000 to 17,000 new jobs in an area long in need of local industry. They cited commitments the developers made to purchase and give the county 622 acres for preservation to compensate for the lost land.
Detractors, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, bashed the project for its potential to reverse restoration efforts in Biscayne Bay and the Everglades. Hold the Line Coalition, a group dedicated to keeping the UDB in place, noted independent experts and county staff had reported there is “sufficient land near existing infrastructure” elsewhere to build the complex.
Levine Cava tried appealing to members of the County Commission who support local environmental restoration and noted the project “brings no guarantee of jobs for South Dade residents while setting a dangerous precedent to allow irresponsible development.”
Miami-Dade Commission Chair and Vice Chair Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Oliver Gilbert III, as well as Keon Hardemon, Kionne McGhee, Jean Monestime, Raquel Regalado, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto voted for the item.
Danielle Cohen Higgins, Sally Heyman, Eileen Higgins and René García voted “no.”
6. Miami’s crypto dream pixelates.
When staffers yanked back the tarp covering it at the Bitcoin conference on Miami Beach in April, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez declared it a symbol of the city’s status as the “capital of crypto”: an 11-foot, 3,000-pound fiberglass reproduction of the Wall Street bull.
“Welcome to the future of finance,” he triumphantly told onlookers while standing by the “Miami Bull” in a pair of Bitcoin-branded sneakers.
By then, Miami, Miami-Dade County and the Miami Heat were about a year removed from inking a 19-year, $135 million deal to rename the NBA team’s downtown arena after cryptocurrency exchanger FTX, which planned to open its U.S. headquarters nearby.
Thanks to Suarez’s savvy outreach, a multitude of financial and tech companies like Blockchain.com, Novo, Blackstone and Softbank had relocated to Miami, fleeing heavy taxes elsewhere for South Florida’s favorable climate.
In August 2021, the city launched MiamiCoin, a native digital currency Suarez said could prove revolutionary, potentially generating $60 million per year and covering many municipal services at no cost to residents.
“We’d be like an oil-producing country,” he told Florida Politics in October 2021.
That turned out to be wishful thinking.
Alongside declines of other cryptocurrencies, the value of MiamiCoin has plunged 99% since its debut. Documentarian and frequent Suarez critic Billy Corben called it a “pump and dump Ponzi scheme,” adding, “MiamiCoin can make you a millionaire, if you started out as a billionaire.”
Then the bombshell hit. Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of FTX, admitted to investors he had steered billions of dollars in customer assets to fund risky bets by an affiliated trading firm.
Bankman-Fried has since been arrested and faces a host of felony fraud and money laundering charges.
The fallout put Miami-Dade in a disadvantaged position, scrambling to find a new name sponsor for the Heat arena amid a high-profile scandal, and rendered many current and potential crypto adopters skeptical of both the medium and its most vocal proponent in Miami.
For them, the Miami Bull statue — now at Miami Dade College — looked more like “Miami Bulls**t.”
5. The Broward County School Board roiled some more.
No other elected board in the state endured more turmoil in 2022 than the Broward County School Board.
The aftershocks of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead keep coming, even after they resulted in the dismissal and arrest of Superintendent Robert Runcie and other administrators in 2021. In August, a grand jury report under wraps for more than a year was made public, prompting the Governor to turn the School Board in one of the state’s most liberal strongholds into a Republican-controlled one.
Citing their dereliction of duty, DeSantis replaced four sitting Board members. They joined another DeSantis appointee the Governor named earlier to replace Rosalind Osgood, who resigned her seat to run for Senate.
The grand jury found the four Board members and Osgood had been negligent in their duties because they allowed Runcie to delay work on $800 million worth of improvements to school facilities. Voters had approved the bond money in 2014, but the work was undone, including the replacement of an alarm system at the scene of the fatal shooting.
The DeSantis-majority Board outvoted the remnants of the elected Board on a number of issues. They also fired Runcie’s successor, Vickie Cartwright, and increased funding of the county’s charter schools beyond what state statutes require.
Both actions were quickly undone, however, after School Board elections left only one DeSantis appointee on the Board.
But one election might mean DeSantis gets another appointee on the Board in 2023.
Rodney Velez of Hollywood won election to the Board to represent southern Broward County, but a 27-year-old felony conviction will keep him from serving. DeSantis re-appointed Daniel Foganholi to the Board — an action Velez vows to fight.
4. Lauren Book’s seat defense exposes cracks in the Democratic dam.
For more than 12 years, Barbara Sharief has been a fixture in local politics. But her move to take on the Democratic Senate Leader up for election in a newly drawn Senate district had jaws dropping.
Lauren Book is one of the most recognizable faces in the Florida Legislature, a fundraising powerhouse and high-profile champion of protecting children, gun control and improving affordability, be it health care, housing or saving on diaper taxes.
An intra-party challenge to a sitting party leader, as they say, is just not done.
But Sharief was unapologetic. She started her career in Miramar city politics, which is a big part of Senate District 35 and represented this part of the county on the Broward Commission for more than a decade. A health care executive, running a home health care service, she loaned her campaign $630,000.
“I’m not hurting Democrats, I am a Democrat,” she said at the time she announced her candidacy. “And if Lauren Book doesn’t want a challenge, then don’t run in this seat because she doesn’t live in this district.”
Book had moved to SD 35 because the decennial redistricting process put her in the district of newly elected Democratic Sen. Rosalind Osgood, who won her seat in a Special Election earlier in 2022.
The race quickly turned nasty, however, with TV advertisements showing charges and countercharges between the two campaigns. Sharief sued Book for one campaign advertisement, which is still pending. Campaign records show Book, who raises money for candidates around the state, sent about $2.5 million to the Florida Democratic Campaign Committee. The Book campaign disbursed a total of $5 million, however, with a substantial portion going to defend Book’s seat.
Those expenditures were cited as Miami Beach Democratic Rep. Michael Greico dropped his bid to represent Senate District 36. In the election, Sen. Republican Ileana Garcia, who won by just 34 votes in 2020, defeated the Democratic challenger who took Greico’s place by double digits.
3. Parkland shooter verdict roils victims, prompts calls for change.
Shock and outrage greeted the jury verdict that Nikolas Cruz would not suffer the ultimate punishment for a crime that video cameras show he unmistakably committed: Rampaging through the classrooms and halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people.
Three holdouts on the jury kept the state from imposing the death penalty. Condemnation of that decision crossed party lines and all walks of life, right on up to the Governor.
“The state of Florida has executed people in our history who’ve committed really dastardly crimes, but crimes that didn’t reach this level of carnage, and yet somehow he’s going to be living off taxpayer expense for what, 50 years, 60 years,” DeSantis said. “His victims didn’t get that luxury to be able to live out those decades.”
U.S. Rep.-elect Jared Moskowitz, an alum of MSD, let go an expletive on Twitter after the verdict was in: “f***ing unacceptable.”
“He should die 17 times!” Moskowitz tweeted.
The incongruity that the perpetrator of the state’s worst school shooting should get to live out his natural life in prison led to calls from Stoneman Douglas families and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association that the standard for imposing the death penalty should be changed.
In 2016, the state changed the law so anything less than a 12-0 verdict during the penalty phase means an automatic life sentence without parole. Look for legislation to change it back, Ed Brodsky, president of the prosecutors’ association, told the Associated Press.
“When there is an overwhelming majority and sentiment about what the ultimate penalty should be, should one minority voice be able to dominate and hijack justice?” said Brodsky, the elected State Attorney for Sarasota County and its neighbors.
2. South Florida continues to shift red.
Key to the state’s reddening hue is that South Florida is no longer the Democratic stronghold it once was.
For this past election, part of this shift involved Democrats staying home. Palm Beach County broke for Republican Gov. DeSantis by nearly 3 percentage points, even though Palm Beach Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 106,000 registered voters. In Broward County, almost 100,000 fewer Democrats voted than in the 2018 midterms.
That the three South Florida counties — Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach — collectively added up to boost a Republican Governor’s margin of victory would have been unimaginable four years ago. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum collected over half a million more votes than DeSantis did across those three counties.
In state history, hometown son Jeb Bush had been the only Republican Governor that Miami-Dade voters preferred over the Democratic nominee before the 2022 election.
Even more, results on the local level show Republican coattails are getting candidates elected to Palm Beach Commission seats and even in state legislative districts once thought of as reliably blue.
Palm Beach Mayor Robert Weinroth, a Democrat, had seemed like a shoo-in on paper against Republican Marci Smoak Woodward, a first-time political candidate with a fraction of his funding. So did Michelle Oyola McGovern against Republican Sara Baxter, another first-time candidate who put $20,000 of her money into the race. McGovern won a Democratic Primary that was the costliest county race in history, with spending exceeding $1 million.
But both first-time Republican candidates triumphed.
In a Miami Beach area legislative race, first-time Republican state candidate Fabían Basabe outdid expectations when he beat former Bay Harbor Islands Mayor Jordan Leonard in a House district that favored President Joe Biden by nearly 10 percentage points in 2020.
1. Federal agents search Mar-a-Lago, haul out boxes of missing classified documents.
As it turned out, the biggest story to come out of South Florida in 2022 was first reported by Florida Politics.
On Aug. 8, federal agents executed a search of Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, where they seized hundreds of classified documents he removed from the White House.
The search marked a dramatic escalation in scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice of a months-long probe into Trump’s appropriation of presidential records and a new chapter in federal investigation of alleged wrongdoings during his four years in office.
Florida Politics publisher Peter Schorsch broke the news on Twitter, citing confirmation from two independent sources. Trump acknowledged the “raid” shortly after, then left the resort for more than a month.
Since then, the former President tried unsuccessfully to stall matters by requesting a special master to review the seized files while he and supporters decried the search and related investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Prosecutors are working to determine whether Trump obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve the papers.
He grew more cooperative this month, hiring people to search four of his properties in accordance with a request from a federal judge that he look harder for any additional materials he still possessed. They turned up at least two more documents marked classified in a West Palm Beach storage site.
The ongoing investigation is part of a larger probe of Trump’s activities during and after he took office running parallel to a series of House committee hearings that on Dec. 19 led to recommendations of criminal charges against him for allegedly trying to obstruct, defraud and overturn the 2020 election and its certification by Congress on Jan. 6.
While it began in 2022, the investigation over the “Mar-a-Lago papers” and activities related to it will no doubt have major impacts on the 2023 news cycle and beyond.