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Daniella Levine Cava: Inside the world of a new county commissioner

“The good news is we’re united in opposing discrimination. The bad news is now we’re divided about bathrooms.” This is one of the first things Daniella Levine Cava said from the dais as a Miami-Dade County commissioner.

It wasn’t planned that way, but then local politics has never lent itself to easy prediction. It was December 2, just two weeks after she’d been sworn in as District 8’s new commissioner following a closely watched and often heated campaign.

The commission’s agenda included a final vote on an ordinance banning gender identity discrimination in Miami-Dade. The measure was expected to pass—more than half the commission signed on as sponsors—but not without contention. Hundreds of supporters and opponents had shown up in the chambers that morning, waiting hours for their tightly enforced two minutes of public comment.

The commissioners spent a while discussing the ordinance among themselves before they opened the floor for public comment. Commissioners Esteban Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Juan Zapata had concerns about public safety. What if someone used the transgender protections to enter women’s restrooms, saying they identified as a female, and molest or assault people?

“There are the cases of deviants who will take advantage of this,” said Bovo. It’s a specious argument with a long history in LGBT equality debates. But that is how the Miami-Dade County Commission, and hundreds of its constituents, came to spend six hours on the subject of bathrooms.

Most of the opposition statements began, “I don’t support discrimination, but…” The preface disclaimer is a curious feature of our political era: conscientious enough to acknowledge political correctness but not enough to prevent a politically incorrect statement. It’s an odd waiver of personal liability, and on this particular day, a hundred were issued. For five hours, supporters from the Save Dade organization spoke between longer blocks of opponents and skeptics, nearly all of whom invoked the restroom safety concern.

When her turn to speak arrived, Levine Cava called it out, smiling. She is disarmingly gracious, like a family member who loves you enough to remind you when you might not be living up to your potential. “This ordinance is not asking for special rights, it’s asking for equal rights. I honor the fears and worries of many in the room, but I believe that experience will show that it isn’t about this law. This isn’t the reason anything dangerous would happen to our children.”

“I formed that line five seconds before I said it,” she told me a few days later, “but it reflects a lifetime of experience. This issue is one I know. It’s one of the reasons I ran. My opponent had opposed it. I was really looking forward to it, but I felt bad—here I’d run this campaign on the issue and I don’t know what I’m going to say. It’s my first meeting.”

“My inclination is to be logical. People have fears, but there was nothing to latch on to. After the niceties, they would just spew hate. You can’t call people on it; it doesn’t serve anything. I wasn’t going to change hearts or minds.”

The business of local government is a melange of form and function, lofty ideas and expedient compromises, and it rarely tends toward logic. Public commentary is enshrined in government proceedings, but its execution has a less certain record. Most items have a known outcome, in practice if not in principle, before they ever reach the floor for public feedback.

The town hall kook is an almost universal concept in America, an easy target for cynics and a source of recurring frustration for everyone but our most earnest Leslie Knopes—and even then, sometimes there are just too many Eagletonians.

It’s easy to imagine how years on the job as a commissioner might dull the senses to the public procedures of governance, overlong and inhuman as they are. Elected officials can seem to be going through the motions, passengers in a machine whose direction and construction cannot be changed. Politics is rife with resigned acknowledgments of ‘the way things work.’ Many of them are true.

Levine Cava never seems to be along for the ride. She’s outside, tinkering with the machine, thinking about how we might all work on it together, prodding at the process of county government, asking questions that might have long since passed into accepted reality for her colleagues.

Later in that first meeting, as commissioners debated a $65 million no-bid contract for construction of urgent new airport projects, Levine Cava asked county staff to share at the public meeting information about the proposal that they’d given commissioners beforehand. When the issue first came up, she expected to oppose it on transparency grounds, she later told me, but when she went to the airport and learned the details of the process (most of the money would still be bid out) she decided it made sense.

“I’m not for form over substance. The bottom line is, what does this look like for the public?” She also suggested the commission might change the way it lists agenda items, to provide a better explanation to the public about each one.

I wanted to know what it’s like to be the new kid on the county commission, particularly when you have ideas for how to change it. Levine Cava ran on “restoring trust in government,” tackling corruption, social justice, transit, quality of life — not the terrain of easy rhetorical victories.

For every politician with a success story, dozens more have wrecked upon the shoals of bitter realities and stubborn statuses quo. But something’s worked so far for Daniella, as her team calls her: she’s only the third person in 20 years to unseat an incumbent county commissioner. And that doesn’t happen by accident.

“A Perfect Storm”

Levine Cava’s stay in Miami is about three decades longer than expected.

“We were going to sail around the world,” she says. Shortly before her husband was going to take a sabbatical, his father was diagnosed with cancer. So they started a family and raised their kids in Miami. And they never left.

Now 59, Levine Cava was born in New York City and grew up around the world, living in Brazil, Chile, Canada, and around the U.S.

“It took me about 10 years to decide Miami was a place I was going to invest in big time. It wasn’t like one day I woke up and my attitude about Miami was completely different. But there was a point in time I didn’t like this place. It was very frustrating to me that I couldn’t unlock the doors to create a more community-minded place.”

“It was Hurricane Andrew that was so transformational for this community. When I started to feel like, yes, I can do something here that would be valuable — that’s when I really started to love Miami.”

We’re sitting in her downtown office, at an austere conference table with a disappointing interior window onto the lobby of Government Center. She rises and falls visibly as she talks; the emotions of the subject have a way of flowing into her physical space.

“I just became so passionate about what Miami could show the world. We’re the canary in the mineshaft. We’re so far ahead of the curve on what’s happening in the world, everything happens first. We survived but we didn’t thrive. I hadn’t thought about it until this moment, but it’s our adversity that’s putting us at the top again.”

After Andrew, she helped create a new system for child abuse cases at the Department for Children and Families, and later managed foster care, adoption and child legal services for DCF. In 1995 she founded the Human Services Coalition of Dade County, later renamed Catalyst Miami. Catalyst bills itself as an organization “connecting people to shared purpose and place” by connecting people to financial, health, educational, and economic opportunities. Levine Cava built Catalyst into one of the most widely recognized social organizations in Miami-Dade, with a reputation for collaboration.

Over the years, friends would suggest she run for office, but the circumstances never seemed right — until Lynda Bell, in Miami-Dade’s 8th District, was up for reelection and considered a target for a challenge.

“I wasn’t planning to run for office. It wasn’t always an ambition to run for office. But the opportunity presented itself, and I was confident I could do it.”

“I was persuaded through my friend Cindy Lerner who became Mayor of Pinecrest. She was having fun and doing so many creative things. I cared about county issues but so much of their time was spent on issues that I did not think would be of interest; now I see they just don’t always exercise the power they have for good. I am amazed at the number of things I can touch on.”

We tend to expect an all-consuming ambition of our elected officials, and not to believe them when they say otherwise. We don’t talk much about the nuances of the decision to run for office; of how to make it accessible to people who might want to serve but aren’t driven by a primal need for power or attention. Which may be why many people don’t consider it. And why many people looked at Levine Cava’s victory as an opportunity for change in local politics. But she cautions against trying to generalize too many lessons from her journey.

“Many have said the fact I was able to unseat an incumbent gives people hope. But the conditions were such that it was a perfect storm for me. It was a lifetime of connections. It was a network of people who would not normally contribute to campaigns but were willing to contribute because they trusted me. It was the coalition of all these groups I had worked with for so long and saw me as being able to turn the tide on a number of different fronts. It was the fact that my opponent didn’t run a very good campaign and had a lot of enemies from her own behavior. It was an unusual set of things. But what I did was not ‘the answer’.”

The campaign was anything but usual. It set records for fundraising and spending in a county commission race — Bell raised nearly a million dollars, including major donations from county contractors and developers; Levine Cava raised more than $500,000, including from local and national Democratic heavyweights.

In the middle of summer, as the August election approached, Bell’s campaign and associated political committees published several misleading attack ads, including one saying Levine Cava was earning “over $500,000 in salary” as CEO of nonprofit Catalyst (they were getting the figure from adding up ten years of tax returns).

“I think what surprised us was the nature of what our opponent was saying about Daniella,” Matt Williams, who managed Levine Cava’s campaign, told me. “It’s not like they were just creative about what they were saying; they were just flat-out mistruths.”

Both campaigns sent mailers with photos of political associations, respectively showing Bell with Governor Rick Scott and Levine Cava with Congressman Joe Garcia. A televised debate between the candidates was passionate and forceful and made major local headlines. The stakes were high, and the Levine Cava campaign invested heavily in its field program. “There were some months where Daniella knocked on a thousand doors herself,” said Williams.

She won by fewer than 700 votes, a four percent margin on the roughly 17,000 votes cast. Local races have a different mathematics about them; where national campaigns can obscure the role of the individual voter, local ones are often decided by fewer people than would fit into a theater. The numbers make it possible for a field campaign to overcome fundraising or the benefits of incumbency, but it also makes campaigning that much more personal.

“They’ve really got to have a heart for it,” says Williams of potential candidates. “Daniella is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and she’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. You’ve got to master that resilience and that passion. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

For Levine Cava, the transition started almost immediately, and three months later she was in office. The move from campaigning to governing is a storied challenge for candidates who run on changing the way business is done. It’s easy to become Bill McKay in The Candidate, standing on another side of victory asking, “What do we do now?”

On the first day we meet, in early December, her entire team is outside Government Center posing for pictures. They call themselves “Team Daniella,” though the word “family” is often used between them.

Each commissioner gets a budget, which they mostly get to allocate as they like. Many use a large portion of the funds for sponsorships and grants to organizations in the district. Levine Cava invested heavily in her team — she has two people dedicated to community engagement, a team focused on special initiatives, and plans to provide a variety of support services to her district, such as help applying for nonprofit grants.

“It’s really amplifying my capacity to touch base with more people.” Levine Cava’s orbit has the feeling of a perpetual Thanksgiving; jovial, welcoming, and infused with a sense of vague but inescapable common purpose. She says being the eldest child gave her an early sense of leadership, though it’s a skill she’s still developing. “I don’t mind being in charge, but I told them, ‘I’m just one of the team’.”

 

“Come out swinging”

In late January, Levine Cava and Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose District 9 envelopes District 8, spoke at the dedication of a new event space at Central Campesino Farmworker Center in Homestead.

Levine Cava went first. “We need a South Dade plan,” she said. “What a special treasure we have here. But how sad is it that you go to a grocery store and you can’t buy local produce?” She talked about her agenda for District 8, which includes economic resources, increased transparency, quality of life improvements, environment, and transit.

Her vision is a webbing of issues that connect and affect each other; it acknowledges that nothing in local government is as simple as we might want it to be, but that can also make it harder to follow. When she finished, she took an audible deep breath and sat down, laughing. The audience laughed with her.

“It was a wonderful victory for the people of your district,” Moss said of Levine Cava. He’s been in office since 1993. Where Levine Cava is complex and nuanced, Moss is polished and precise, and only focused on one thing. “My platform is jobs.” He talks about a man who came up to him and thanked him for his jobs program because he’d finally been able to find work. Nods from the audience. People saying “yes” to themselves. He’s made a congregation.

It’s a trope in politics to have the apocryphal story of the man/woman/child/dog/cat you met and what they told you, which conveniently seems to align with the point you’re making. It’s a trope because it works. It makes things bite-sized, human; lets us look at faces instead of charts. But it also makes politics’ impossible game of trade-offs seem linear and easy; a switch we just need to flip instead of the Rube Goldberg machine it often is. Levine Cava doesn’t use many of these stories.

But that’s not to say she doesn’t understand how the game is played. “I ran on the idea of open, transparent government. I didn’t know what I’d be able to do,” she told me in early December. One goal is legislation requiring commissioners to disclose all their potential conflicts of interest when voting on items; right now, the requirements are fairly limited. “I’m one of thirteen,” she says. She’s meeting with each of her colleagues, finding ways to be collaborative.

“She’s both a big picture thinker, and knows how important it is to attend to the details of the district,” says Katy Sorenson, a former county commissioner (who also defeated an incumbent) who now runs the Good Government Initiative, which encourages and trains people to run for office. “She’s gone about forging relationships with her fellow commissioners in a very smart way. She’s convened a number of sunshine meetings with her colleagues to find out what their priorities are, so she doesn’t step on any toes but can be helpful.”

“She’s doing a lot of things right. The problem for Daniella will be that she will want to do everything and you can’t do everything.”

A common line of thinking says you only get one issue in a tenure, maybe two. Three if you’re lucky. Politics has a long history of teaching people with big ideas to meter their expectations. Miami-Dade County has a $110 billion GDP—more than many states—and more than 32,000 public employees (not counting another 50,000 in its schools). It has not, historically, been an easy ship to steer.

When we meet again in late January, she has two months on the job. We wander between looming subjects—sea level rise (“We’ve got another 20 years and then this place will be Venice or has-been; I’m fascinated by the resilience and human spirit to deal with those things”), transportation (“It will either sink us or save us.”), tolls, transparency—her energy is everywhere, but she also has an emerging sense of balance. There are the little balls to juggle, unexpected and sudden, and there are the big rocks, impending and difficult.

At the 2015 Citizen’s Transportation Summit in late January, Levine Cava was noted as the only commissioner who stayed for the whole meeting. Most came for the introductions and left shortly thereafter. “Maybe if I knew everything there was to know about public transit [I wouldn’t go]. But really the day wasn’t about learning. It was about hearing other people and their concerns.”

“I’m always looking for the win-win,” she says. When the Roll Back Tolls campaign started in her district in response to new tolling on local expressways, Levine Cava looked for opportunities to collaborate.“I can’t come out swinging the way [the organizer] would, but let’s see what we can do to work together.”

When vacancies opened on the MDX board, there were questions about conflicts of interest with some candidates. “I said, can you give me some questions I can ask on the record? That’s one thing I can do as a commissioner—get answers. To me that’s the ideal situation, where we’re working collaboratively.”

I ask her how we encourage more people to run for office, to challenge incumbents, to prod at the process of county government and try to make it better. She says trust in government and corruption are major obstacles. “We could, with the proper will, take it back. And I guess it gets my juices flowing. Because once we do there would be more fertile territory.” New candidates “wouldn’t have to kowtow and play the usual games.”

“Last night I was in South Dade and a friend got up to the microphone and said, ‘your campaign was about ending pay to play in politics, what have you done about that? You’ve been in office two months.’ It caught me short. I’ve been dealing with little things. Each of these things builds some credibility and political capital for me to tackle more things.”

She describes a few recent issues with lobbying, and proposals to limit conflicts of interest. “That’s a game-changer. It’s not that I don’t like lobbyists. I was a lobbyist. Lobbyists are important. But they’re not in charge. If you want to do business with the county, you shouldn’t be able to contribute to campaigns. That would be so big. But I can’t come out swinging on that.”

Three months in, she has her team assembled, a strategic plan underway, and an emerging legislative agenda. It’s hard to find your footing in a place with such high expectations, and once you do, you have to wonder where you’re standing.

“What I’m most fearful of is losing perspective and humility,” she says. She props her head on her hand and looks out the window, such as it is. One can’t see much from a commissioner’s office except the lobby of Government Center. Perhaps that’s fitting for making the point. “That I’ll forget what it’s like to sit in the audience instead of on the dais. I just have to stay in touch.”

A beat.

“I think the element of surprise is also good.”