The endorsement of several Miami Beach City Commission candidates by a political influencer in South Florida’s Jewish community has become the latest flash point in the Nov. 2 elections, with critics noting that candidates were asked in a questionnaire whether religious schools that receive state funding should be required to admit LGBTQ students.
The questionnaire, sent to candidates by school-choice proponent Allan Jacob, alarmed one openly gay city commissioner, who has called on the candidates who were endorsed by Jacob to release their responses to voters ahead of the Nov. 2 election.
Commissioner David Richardson, who said he has opposed Jacob’s political goals since Richardson was a state lawmaker, posted screen shots of the questionnaire and an email purportedly showing Jacob’s endorsements last week, making public allegations that had been festering for weeks among the campaigns.
“Since I know this group, I know that a candidate will never get their support unless you share their point of view. Transparency requires that all 4 of the endorsed candidates publish the answer they submitted to this question, but yet not even 1 of the four endorsed candidates will share that information,” Richardson wrote on Facebook. “That alone is very telling.”
Four candidates received Jacob’s endorsement, according to the email made public by Richardson. Commission candidates Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Alex Fernandez, running in Group I and Group III, respectively, said they filled out a questionnaire but would not release their responses to the Miami Herald, which began asking questions weeks ago.
Mayoral candidate Jean Marie Echemendia and incumbent Commissioner Mark Samuelian said they did not receive a questionnaire.
Rosen Gonzalez, Fernandez and Echemendia told the Herald they don’t support discriminating against students. Samuelian, who was automatically reelected when his one opponent was disqualified by a judge several weeks ago, didn’t respond to questions from the Miami Herald.
The controversy over the endorsement, which was not released publicly, led the LGBTQ group SAVE to discuss its endorsement of Fernandez.
“If you are referring to the question regarding faith-based schools and students who identify as LGBTQ, I discussed my position with SAVE and they are standing behind their endorsement of me,” Fernandez, who is gay, wrote in a text message Oct. 11. “As a gay man, I believe that prohibiting discrimination of any individual, including students, is one of government’s limited roles (and most important roles) over private organizations.”
SAVE also endorsed Samuelian.
SAVE Executive Director Orlando Gonzalez and Deputy Director Justin Klecha did not respond to multiple calls and texts seeking comment.
In a city with large and politically active Jewish and gay communities, Richardson’s Oct. 19 post on Facebook amassed over 100 comments, including responses from Echemendia and Samuelian. It also prompted accusations of anti-Semitism from Echemendia and from Rosen Gonzalez’s fiance, chef Bernie Matz, and vulgar back-and-forth between supporters of opposing candidates.
Richardson has publicly endorsed Rosen Gonzalez’s opponent, Raquel Pacheco, in the race. He denied accusations of anti-Semitism, saying he has “widespread support for the Jewish community and the state of Israel.”
Teach Florida and education vouchers
Jacob, a nephrologist, is the chairman of Teach Florida, a group that advocates for the expansion of public scholarships for students to attend private schools in Florida. Following the election of Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018, Jacob was named to the transition team’s Advisory Committee on Education and Workforce Development.
A 2018 press release from Teach Florida refers to the organization as an affiliate of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition and says it had delivered “more than $88 million in state scholarship and security funding to Florida Jewish day schools since 2011.”
“Stand up for our children’s future by working with Teach Florida when it’s time to vote,” Jacob says in a video published on the Teach Florida website.
Jacob, who did not respond to calls, texts and an email seeking comment, describes himself on social media as a Jewish community leader and organizer.
“He definitely has sway,” Richardson said. “I don’t know if it’s 100, 200 votes or 500 votes. But he has sway.”
The Herald obtained a copy of the questionnaire, a 6-page document with questions borrowed from a national school-choice organization, and two additional questions Jacob asked candidates to answer to be considered for his endorsement.
One of the two additional questions asks: “Please share your views on modifying the state regulations of faith-based private schools that accept the state scholarships like the McKay Scholarship, Step Up for Students Scholarships, and Gardiner Scholarship to require them to admit students that identify as LGBTQ.”
Richardson shared a private email he said Jacob sent to his supporters announcing his endorsement. In it, he listed the four candidates and wrote that they “all strongly support our initiatives.” The Herald has not independently confirmed the email’s authenticity.
Whether state funding should go to religious schools with anti-LGBTQ views became a topic of discussion last year, after the Orlando Sentinel reported that 156 private Christian schools with anti-gay views educated more than 20,800 students with tuition paid for by state scholarships. The newspaper found that 83 of those schools refuse to admit LGBTQ students or could expel them if their sexual orientation or gender identity were discovered.
The reporting led a handful of companies, like Wells Fargo and Wyndham Destinations, to announce they would stop contributing to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is funded by companies that receive tax credits in exchange for their contributions.
One of the first companies to withdraw its support, Fifth Third Bank, reversed course after reviewing the scholarship program and concluding “that students and their families make the decision as to which schools best fit the individual student’s educational needs. The choice is entirely up to them.”
Under Florida scholarship requirements, participating private schools can’t discriminate based on the “race, color or national origin” of students. Florida Democrats tried last year to pass a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the discrimination law, but it failed in the Republican-controlled Florida House.
Adrian Gonzalez, a Group 1 commission candidate, said he received Jacob’s endorsement in 2019 when he ran against Richardson. He lost that race in a runoff, but said Jacob’s endorsement “definitely has some weight.”
This year, despite writing in the questionnaire he was “100%” supportive of school choice and expanding scholarship programs, he didn’t get the endorsement. Gonzalez, who provided the Herald with his filled-out questionnaire, wrote that schools receiving public funding “must be required to admit students that identify as LGBTQ.”
In a follow-up conversation with Jacob to discuss the endorsement, he said Jacob told him the answers to the discrimination question were what separated him from Rosen Gonzalez, who received the endorsement in the race. Jacob told Gonzalez he “answered wrong,” Gonzalez said.
“He basically said that if they took public money they should be allowed to discriminate at their discretion,” Gonzalez said.
In an Oct. 12 text message, Rosen Gonzalez told the Herald that she was “proud to have the endorsement of the Miami Beach Jewish community” but that she didn’t tolerate discrimination.
“I received a questionnaire, I filled it out, and I am proud to have the endorsement of the Miami Beach Jewish community,” she wrote.
Asked if she believed state-funded schools should be required to admit LGBTQ students, she wrote, “I don’t believe that discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation should be tolerated.”