Miami developer Jorge Pérez — the namesake of the art museum where President Donald Trump will appear Thursday night for a televised town hall — is part of a bipartisan group of prominent Cuban-Americans in Miami working to lift Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Florida.
A Democrat who has developed Trump-branded condo towers and in the past referred to the president as a friend, Pérez told the Miami Herald Wednesday that he’s been offended by Republicans’ efforts to brand the Democratic nominee as a socialist — a tactic that has helped Trump improve his numbers considerably over 2016 with South Florida’s Hispanic voters.
“I am 100% behind Biden,” Pérez wrote Wednesday in a text message. “I resent the attacks branding him and his followers as socialists and even communists. He is a moderate Democrat that will follow a centrist line that will try to be conciliatory and inclusive, the opposite of what we have seen the past 4 years.”
Pérez, though, is among a group of notable Cuban-Americans concerned enough about Biden’s performance in Miami-Dade County that they held a meeting this week with former President Bill Clinton to discuss efforts to help the former vice president in Florida. In a Monday video call, the group of Democrats and at least one Republican discussed how to help Biden bring up his numbers in a region that could decide who wins Florida.
“We discussed the election and what needs to be done to make sure that people vote for Biden,” said developer Sergio Pino, describing the Clinton event as a roundtable unrelated to fundraising. “I’m a Republican. I’ve been a Republican all my life. But I’m voting for decency, so I’m voting for Joe Biden.”
Biden’s numbers with Cuban-Americans have weighed him down in Florida’s most populous county in a way that could influence the outcome of the election in Florida.
According to an Oct. 4 poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, Biden is ahead of Trump by 20 percentage points in Miami-Dade County but he trails Trump 35% to 61% when it comes to the large and conservative-leaning Cuban-American voting bloc. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the Cuban-American vote to Trump by only 13%, according to the polling firm.
That year, Clinton beat Trump in Miami-Dade County as a whole, by 30 points — equal to about 300,000 votes — but went on to lose Florida by about 112,000 votes.
The 2020 election in Florida is likely to come down to a similar, if not tighter margin this year, raising the possibility that Biden’s lack of support among Cuban-American voters could tank his campaign in a state that Trump must win.
“The president is doing very well in Florida, because of you,” Republican Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told a group of Trump supporters gathered Sunday at a “Fighters against Socialism” Trump campaign stop at Tamiami Executive Airport. “Let’s be frank. It’s not easy. It’s a fight. These guys are going to do everything they can to win. ... There can be no one who can forget to vote, not this year, not this time. We can’t afford it.”
Biden’s underwhelming numbers among Cuban-American voters spurred supporters of the former vice president in recent weeks to begin discussing how to improve his standing in Florida’s most populous county, irrespective of his campaign’s efforts. Monday’s call with Bill Clinton was not set up by the Biden campaign, though one person on Monday’s call said it included Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Pérez and senior Biden Florida adviser Juan Peñalosa.
Other attendees, according to the source, included Democrats such as former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia, tech entrepreneur Manny Medina, former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and sugar baron Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul, the co-chairman of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in Florida.
Bill Clinton has not been a regular surrogate for Biden. But the former president — who established the now-defunct “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy for Cuban exiles — has longstanding relationships with Miami’s Cuban-American community. Some on Monday’s call recalled meeting with Clinton at Victor’s Cafe in Little Havana in April of 1992, an event where Clinton announced his support for legislation intended to strangle the Castro government by punishing nations and corporations that traded with Cuba.
Some Democrats have credited the group that met with Clinton that day with helping him get elected as he dealt with allegations of infidelity.
“That group actually saved the Clinton campaign,” Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Democratic fundraiser, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2016.
It is not yet clear what actions, if any, came out of Monday’s call with Clinton.
In Miami Wednesday, Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, told the Miami Herald that the call with Clinton was a sign that the party is “taking no one for granted” with less than three weeks until the Nov. 3 election.
“We talked with Republican and Democratic leaders from the Cuban community about the fact that Joe Biden is the person who’s going to be for the best interest of the Cuban-American community here,” Perez said, while leaving a get-out-the-vote event at a Hurricane Maria mural in Wynwood. “We had a great session and President Clinton was really helpful. We’ve got Republicans and Democrats in that group who understand that Joe Biden is the person who is the choice.”
Pino, among those at the original Victor’s Cafe meeting, told the Miami Herald that he’s disturbed by Trump’s efforts to brand all Democrats as socialists, and more recently as communists.
“My dad is 91 years old, doesn’t speak English, and he thinks if Biden is elected, we’re going to have the same thing here we had in Cuba. And there is no way to change his mind. There is nothing I can do,” said Pino. “This is how divided we are as a family. I tell my dad ‘This guy supports white supremacists,’ and my dad says, ‘Yeah, but the other guy is a communist.’”
Pérez, the developer who has his name on the art museum where Trump will speak Thursday, told the Miami Herald he also opposes Trump tax policies that have benefited the wealthy — “I am one, so I know” — and his administration’s efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act. He said he believes the Democratic Party is also best on the environment and on making opportunities available to people who are working to improve their lives.
“I am a total capitalist (with a social conscience) who came to this country without any money and was afforded a great education and opportunity,” he wrote. “This is what Democrats stand for: allowing all to succeed if they work hard. We need to make it, as much as possible, an equal playing field for everybody.”
The Pérez Art Museum Miami is renting its facilities to NBC, which is conducting Thursday’s town hall with Trump. The network previously held a town hall with Biden on Oct. 5 at the museum, a public-private institution.
Miami Herald staff writers Karina Elwood and Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.