Miguel Angel Gabela won the election in Miami’s District 1, a victory that also marks the downfall of an incumbent commissioner 10 weeks after he was arrested on corruption charges.
Unofficial results of Tuesday’s runoff election show Gabela with about 54% of the vote to win the District 1 seat, his first successful campaign in four bids for City Hall over the last decade. The 59-year-old auto parts salesman beat Alex Díaz de la Portilla, a well-funded incumbent who’s accused of selling his vote in exchange for political contributions and gifts.
“It’s a new day for city of Miami,” Gabela told the Miami Herald shortly after arriving at his victory party at the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant.
Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” blasted as Gabela greeted supporters, which included Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins — a former opponent of Alex Díaz de la Portilla and his brother Renier Díaz de la Portilla in separate county commission races.
“I’m thrilled that the people chose Miguel Gabela,” Higgins said. “It’s a strong sign that Miami residents are sick and tired of the rampant corruption at City Hall. It’s nice to know District 1 will be represented by someone who will focus on the people.”
Another backer seen fist pumping and cheering the results was Manuel Prieguez, a lobbyist and former state representative who is suing Alex Díaz de la Portilla in Miami-Dade Circuit Court over an alleged “shakedown” scheme involving the longtime operator of a city-owned marina.
Prieguez said the results were “extremely gratifying” for him personally, and he lauded Gabela for a campaign that has lasted most of the year.
“Make no mistake, that man worked tirelessly since February walking door to door, and his message resonated — the message that corruption was the biggest problem in the city of Miami,” Prieguez said. “And now that has been corrected to a great degree by making sure that Alex Díaz de la Portilla cannot continue as a commissioner in the city of Miami.”
A former state lawmaker with decades of experience in Tallahassee, Díaz de la Portilla made a political comeback in 2019 when he was first elected to the city commission, beating Gabela in their first campaign against each other. The Díaz de la Portilla name is well-known as a political dynasty in South Florida politics.
In the criminal case against him, Díaz de la Portilla has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to all charges. His legal woes mounted further the week before the election when he lost his family home in a foreclosure sale Nov. 15 after making no mortgage payments on the property since 2012, according to court documents.
Still, Díaz de la Portilla had boasted he would “win big” in the weeks leading up to the election. After the results Tuesday night, he gave a short comment to the Herald.
“Stay tuned,” he said in a text message.
The campaign featured several waves of political attack ads that were intensified by the charges against Díaz de la Portilla. The drama also played out in court, with the city seeking to invalidate Gabela’s candidacy based on his residency. The challenge came months after commissioners, including Díaz de la Portilla, voted to redraw district boundaries in a way that excluded Gabela’s longtime home from District 1.
A Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge and a three-judge panel from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal agreed that Gabela was a qualified candidate, but the legal battles will continue.
On Monday, Díaz de la Portilla sued Gabela in civil court, alleging that Gabela doesn’t live in the district. On Tuesday, City Attorney Victoria Méndez has asked the full 10-judge appellate panel to review the opinion.
District 1 includes Allapattah, the Health District, Grapeland Heights, Flagami and parts of Little Havana.
Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who handily won reelection Nov. 7 in District 4, congratulated Gabela and pledged to work with him and Damian Pardo, who won the District 2 seat and unseated the incumbent, Sabina Covo.
“The people spoke. They chose who they want to represent them,” Reyes said. “I’m willing to work with both of them. I hope they bring a philosophy to serve the people and not to serve themselves.”