Miami city commission candidate fights in court to stay on November ballot

A hearing is scheduled in Miami-Dade County court to hear arguments and get a ruling before early voting begins in late October.

Prospective Miami City Commission candidate Miguel Gabela, pictured here at a Sept. 23, 2023 commission meeting.

Prospective Miami City Commission candidate Miguel Gabela, pictured here at a Sept. 23, 2023 commission meeting. City of Miami screen capture via WLRN News

When a reshaped Miami voting map moved his home address out of the district where he was campaigning, Miguel Gabela sued the city in civil court to stay on the ballot. The city countersued, arguing he should be removed from the ballot.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Miami-Dade County court to hear arguments and get a ruling before early voting begins in late October.

Gabela has been campaigning since February in Miami's District 1, which includes Allapattah and the Health District. He was set to face off against recently suspended Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who was removed from office following an arrest on alleged money laundering and official misconduct charges. His seat won't be filled until the election in November.

Last June — while Diaz de la Portilla was still in office — Gabela's address was carved out of District 1 and moved into District 3 when the city commission changed the voting map.

Miami leaders redrew the voting map as part of another ongoing lawsuit in federal court in which the city was accused of "racially gerrymandering" voting districts — an accusation the city refutes. The city adopted its current districts on June 14, prompting a legal challenge, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city could use its map in the November election.

Gabela sued in county court to invalidate the city's district map, but in the meantime he moved to a different property: an apartment in Allapattah that lies within the current boundaries of District 1.

The Miami charter requires that candidates live in the district where they seek office for at least one year before qualifying to run. According to candidate paperwork Gabela turned in to the City Clerk's office, he moved in to the Allapattah apartment on August 15 — two months after the city changed the voting map, and one month before the qualifying period in September.

Now the candidate and the city are butting heads as to whether that means he qualifies to run this year.

Gabela and his attorney, Juan Carlos Planas, believe that he should be allowed on the November ballot because the map that moved his home out of District 1 was subject to change before the Supreme Court's ruling.

"It was still in flux with the appellate court," Planas tells WLRN. "Gabela is now in compliance because he meets the residency requirement, but he wishes to move back eventually."

Miami officials, however, think otherwise.

Todd Hannon, clerk for the City of Miami, countersued Gabela last week, arguing that Gabela did not live in the district for a full year. He asked the court to rule in the city's favor and remove Gabela from the ballot, or inform voters that he is not a qualified candidate.

"...It appears from the face of the documents submitted that Counter-Defendant GABELA was not a resident in the City of Miami’s District 1 for the entire one year period preceding the qualifying deadline of September 23, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.," Hannon states in his complaint.

Hannon's countersuit also names Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Christina White in her capacity to change the ballots or add clarification to voter materials before election day on November 7.

"The City is grateful to the Court for taking the time to consider this matter on an expedited basis. The parties agreed that the issue of Mr. Gabela’s qualification will ultimately be decided by the Court in the future," Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez said in a written statement.

Miami-Dade County Judge Pedro P. Echarte Jr. set a hearing for Wednesday to hear arguments in the case.

As the court decides on the fate of Gabela's candidacy, the city is quickly approaching the first election days. Early voting in Miami begins on October 28. The commission seats up for vote are districts 1, 2 and 4.

In District 1, there are three other candidates competing for Diaz de la Portilla's seat: Franciso Pichel, Mercedes Librada Rodriguez and Marvin Tapia. To date, none reported raising any campaign funds. Gabela reported raising $18,000.

In 2019, Diaz de la Portilla trounced Gabela in a run-off election by almost 1,000 votes, 61%-39%. Voter turnout was less than 4,600, according to elections data.

This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN NewsJoshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org

NEXT STORY: GOP states announce new voter roll systems. Are they as secure as ERIC?