Delray’s Mayoral War Chests Expand & More Delray-Boca Election News

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Tracy Caruso and Shelly Petrolia

In the Delray Beach mayor’s race, fundraising and rhetoric keep rolling.

Tracy Caruso, who is challenging incumbent Shelly Petrolia, received another $46,000 between Feb. 1 and Feb. 25. That gives her a total of $181,000—far more than any mayoral candidate in Delray Beach ever has raised.

As fast as the money comes in, it’s going out. Caruso spent $50,000 in February and has gone through $150,000 since beginning her campaign last year. Caruso loaned herself $51,000, but repaid $15,000 of that last month.

“I don’t need it,” Caruso said. “I raised more than the budget I had estimated. The support has been overwhelming.”

Petrolia also did well, by the standard of previous elections. She got $19,000, for a total of $132,000. That includes a $50,000 loan. Petrolia, though, has spent just $52,000. We’ll see if that reserve allows the mayor to make a late push.

From the start, Petrolia has criticized Caruso for accepting so much money from business interests and for being dependent on connections to her husband, State Rep. Mike Caruso. Nothing in the new report will give Petrolia reason to change that attack.

Caruso’s most recent contributions include $3,000 from individuals and entities with Delray Beach-based Ocean Properties and $2,000 from Chuck Halberg and his company, Stuart & Shelby Development. Caruso got $1,000 from Match Point, which promotes the city’s annual men’s pro tennis tournament, and $1,000 from Christina Morrison, a former board member of the chamber of commerce. Another $1,000 came from William Himmelrich, owner of Old School Bakery.

As for those ties to Mike Caruso and the Legislature, I count donations of $1,000—the legal limit—from 18 political action committees that normally concern themselves with state government. Delray Beach is hardly a farm town, but Caruso’s donors include Florida Farmers and Ranchers United.

The argument for Caruso’s approach is that only a well-financed candidate could compete against Petrolia, who has been on the commission for eight years and has a network of social media followers. As for the corporate aspect of Caruso’s contributions, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

In an email, Petrolia said Caruso and incumbent commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel amount to “Team Developer.” She titled the email “Village by the Sea or Mini-Metropolis?” The opposition campaigns are “nothing short of a coordinated developer effort to buy” the commission.

Petrolia opposed the iPic project in 2015 and referred in the email to that vote. She was wrong, however, to say that the project resulted in “millions diverted from our neediest neighborhoods.” The community redevelopment agency assembled that downtown site for a corporate purpose.

Given the mayor’s comments, why would many business owners back Petrolia? Boylston responded with an email in which he said, “Some in our city would have you believe that if you are not with them, you are against them. That you have to pick a side—or else. That’s not the Delray Beach that I’m fighting for. . .” Boylston called himself part of “Team Delray.”

Yet because of Petrolia, the races in Delray Beach basically pit one slate against another. Petrolia supports former commissioner Mitch Katz against Boylston in Seat 3 and Price Patton against Frankel in Seat 1. Petrolia, Katz and Patton use the same campaign vendors. Boylston and Frankel use the same consultant, Cornerstone Solutions, though that company is not involved in the mayor’s race.

Rick Asnani is Cornerstone’s president. He told me that the vitriol of the mayor’s campaign has “made it harder” for commission candidates to cut through the political noise. Yet the link between the mayor and commission races is clear.

It is an election like Delray Beach has never had. Will voters pick sides or candidates?

The Caruso connection

Speaking of that Mike Caruso connection, Tracy Caruso sent out an email touting endorsements from elected officials of  both parties. The list included… her husband. Well, yeah.

Campaigns spins toward audience

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Nothing separates Delray Beach from Boca Raton more than the city’s large minority population. That difference was on display when Delray Beach candidates gathered for their forum last month at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in the city’s southwest neighborhood.

None of the Boca Raton candidates are talking about the George Floyd protests, Black Lives Matter and racial inequality. They aren’t talking about the need for affordable housing. They aren’t talking about the disparity in city spending based on the skin color of those who live in the neighborhoods.

At St. Paul, however, they were talking about almost nothing else. The northwest/southwest neighborhoods form a potentially swing voting bloc, if residents show up. They understand that Delray Beach’s growth of the last three decades has not lifted areas west of Swinton Avenue compared to the east. That was the focus of the forum.

Petrolia claimed credit for getting “money into this community.” It happened, Petrolia said, because she led the effort in April 2018 to abolish the independent community redevelopment agency board and replace it with the city commisison and two appointed members. Now the Pompey Park makeover is underway. More affordable housing is coming. “I’m just getting rolling,” Petrolia said.

Caruso countered by noting Petrolia’s surprise—which the mayor acknowledged—at hearing that Black people had more trouble getting business loans. “I stand with Black Lives Matter,” Caruso said. On matters related to Delray Beach, Caruso favors a return to the independent CRA board. “I want to spread the power.”

Petrolia implied that the link between her becoming mayor and projects starting on the west side was causal. Actually, it’s probably more coincidental.

For decades, much of the CRA’s work west of Swinton Avenue was property acquisition. Residents can’t see that progress the way they can see new buildings. Work on the west side also has been more incremental because the area is composed mostly of single-family neighborhoods. Commercial areas east of Swinton responded more quickly to CRA action.

Petrolia is correct that the city commission grew impatient with CRA spending priorities. I recall a 2016 meeting between the the commission and the CRA board at which the commission basically told then-City Manager Don Cooper and then CRA Director Jeff Costello to coordinate their budgets so that more money could go to minority neighborhoods. The work started with fixup of alleys that had been neglected for years.

“That was the culmination of the city’s frustration,” said Cary Glickstein, who was mayor at the time. What Petrolia credits herself for starting actually began before she was mayor.

The difference between Delray and Boca

At that candidate forum, Boylston made a comment that also illustrates the difference between Delray Beach and Boca Raton.

Most elected officials in both cities, especially the mayors, spend lots of time at community events. Even during the pandemic, the list of groups that want a commissioner or council member at their gathering is long.

Boylston, though, spoke of helping with city food drives, joining efforts to bring affordable housing to neglected neighborhoods and advocating for the city’s schools. That’s the sort of work elected officials take on only if they care.

“What happens on the dais” during meetings, “Boylston said, “is a small part” of what Delray’s commissioners do. I recall Glickstein jawboning U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel to get updated legal guidance from the federal government that allowed Delray Beach to regulate sober houses.

Media coverage of Washington often fixates on those who make the most noise but contribute the least. We would be a better country and state if Congress and the Florida Legislature fixated on actual problems rather than political statements.

New apartment proposal

With the Petrolia slate campaigning against development, along comes a proposed development project at today’s commission meeting.

A group called 1st Avenue Capital wants to build 100 apartments on vacant land next to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks between Southeast Third Street and Southeast Fourth Street. The developer wants approval of two conditional uses: to build five stories, rather than four, while still adhering to the 54-foot height limit for the area, and a density increase from 30 units per acre to 70 units per acre.

Conditional uses are based on a developer giving something in return for the community. In this case, it would be making 20 of the units workforce housing, with rents below the prevailing market rates. 1st Avenue Capital bought the vacant, 1.46-acre site in 2018 for $3.6 million.

The original version called for six stories and 60 feet and 80 units per acre. The planning and zoning board voted 6-1 to recommend denial. This version also would have a small retail and food portion. Commissioners also would have to approve the use of automated parking garages, which allow additional vehicle storage than the standard design.

Growth south of Atlantic Avenue in what the city calls the Railroad Corridor makes sense, since it would take pressure off of Atlantic. Development also would help the surrounding Osceola Park neighborhood. Commissioners likely will debate whether 20 units would be enough workforce housing to justify the large density increase and whether setbacks would be sufficient, given the additional story.

When the project went before the commission last month for first reading, Petrolia and Juli Casale voted no. Boylston, Frankel and Shirley Johnson supported it. Petrolia might cast the project as an example of overdevelopment and take yet another shot at Boylston and Frankel. The staff report makes no recommendation to the commission.

Mail-in ballots

One factor in Boca Raton’s and Delray Beach’s elections will be the number of mail-in ballots. Saturday was the last day to request one.

In addition to working for Boylston and Frankel in Delray Beach, Cornerstone Solutions is working for Constance Scott and Brian Stenberg in the Boca Raton city council races. A company representative told me that 27,099 voters in Boca Raton asked for mail-in ballots. In Delray Beach, it was 18,856.

Municipal turnout, though, is usually low. Those ballot numbers are high because Palm Beach County voters had the option last year of asking for ballots through the 2022 election.

According to the Cornerstone representative, 6,732 voters in Boca Raton had returned their ballots as of Monday. Delray Beach voters had returned 5,864. For perspective, the last time Boca Raton held an election without a race for mayor, roughly 9,400 people voted. In 2018, the last time Delray Beach had a mayor’s race, roughly 8,500 people voted.

Consultants expect that mail-in ballots will make up more than half of the votes in both cities. The question is whether many of those who asked for ballots don’t vote regularly in city elections and whether they will do so this year simply because the ballot came to them.

O’Rourke complaint  

Last week, I wrote about an election complaint filed against Boca Raton City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke. The complaint alleges that O’Rourke violated state law when she used her city email account to endorse Monica Mayotte in Seat D and Yvette Drucker in Seat C.

I noted that the complaint had been notarized by a vice-president of Cornerstone Solutions, which is working for Scott. I quoted what I considered the applicable portion of state law. O’Rourke took issue with the fact that I didn’t quote another part of the law.

Florida Statute 104.31(a) states that no official “shall use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election or a nomination of office or coercing or influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof.”

O’Rourke directed me to another portion of the law. It states that provision I quoted “shall not be construed so as to limit the political activity … of any kind or nature, of elected officials…”

More good news on doing good 

Pandemic do-gooding continues. The Junior League of Boca Raton announced that the Boca West Children’s Foundation collected more than 100,000 diapers for the league’s diaper bank. That was double last year’s total.

According to a news release from the league, requests for diapers are up 27 percent from 2020. For all the justified efforts to get food to people who have lost jobs or income because of the pandemic, clean diapers also are vital. Soiled diapers can cause urinary tract and skin infections. Most child care centers require parents to provide diapers.

Donors can send checks Donations to the Boca West Children’s Foundation — P.O. Box 3070, Boca Raton, FL 33431 or visit https://www.bocawestfoundation.org/6th-annual-diaper-drive/