This November, Miami Commissioner Manolo Reyes is asking voters to once again elect him to represent the city’s District 4, saying he deserves another four years to focus on problems like flooding and the rising cost of housing.
First elected in 2017 after six failed campaigns over three decades, Reyes, 79, has devoted his time in office to housing initiatives, expanding parks and solidifying infrastructure, like water drainage in flood-prone neighborhoods.
“When I was elected I had a plan,” said Reyes. “We should improve the quality of life of the neighborhoods and protect the neighborhoods, and I’m going to continue doing that.”
The district includes Flagami, Coral Way, Silver Bluff, Shenandoah and Auburndale. Reyes also serves as chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, a tax-funded agency that works to promote business activity in the city’s urban waterfront.
He faces one opponent, Andres “Andy” Vallina, a resident who says he decided to run for office because Reyes has neglected the Flagami area.
“I don’t think the district has been treated fairly. It’s obvious if you just go for a drive for an hour,” said Vallina, whose low profile and inability to raise campaign funds make him a long shot to topple a twice-elected incumbent.
Reyes, a former city budget analyst and retired Miami-Dade school teacher who was born in Cuba, has a reputation for focusing on neighborhood issues at the ground level, from upgrading parks to overhauling flood-prone streets. Well-regarded among South Florida Republicans, he regularly travels to Tallahassee to lobby state lawmakers to steer dollars to street improvements.
Reyes has played a central role in some of the city’s most dramatic moments since he took office in 2017, when voters selected him to fill the final two years of Francis Suarez’s term following his election as mayor.
He notably opposed the 99-year no-bid lease that allows owners of Major League Soccer franchise Inter Miami to redevelop Miami’s only city-owned golf course into a sprawling commercial center and stadium. A staunch critic since the plan’s conception in 2018, his “no” vote complicated Inter Miami’s stadium push because David Beckhman and his partners, Jorge and Jose Mas, needed four of the city’s five commissioners to vote in support of their lease with the city. The item passed in April 2022, but only after years of negotiations and politicking.
Critics have grouped Reyes with Miami’s two other Cuban-American commissioners, Joe Carollo and Alex Díaz de la Portilla, a perceived alliance that Reyes says doesn’t exist because he independently evaluates each matter. Another instance where he voted alone: In late 2018, he opposed an increase to parking rates at garages and street meters across the city, arguing that the hike would hurt small business owners and residents.
Seeking reelection in a year where public corruption has become a key issue, Reyes was one of three commissioners accused of exerting improper influence on the Miami Police Department in 2021 by former Chief Art Acevedo. Now the interim chief in Aurora, Acevedo has resurfaced on Miami media following the corruption arrest and suspension of Diaz de la Portilla, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he abused his office, engaged in illegal campaign schemes and sold his vote in exchange for political contributions.
But Reyes is adamant that he has carried himself above-board as a politician, and says he has spent his time in office acutely focused on addressing the problems that residents face on a daily basis.
“I’m incorruptible, no one can buy my vote to sway me one way or the other,” said Reyes. “I didn’t come to the City of Miami to become rich and famous, I came to serve and that’s my philosophy.”
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Reyes said road and drainage improvements have been a focus during his tenure. Since he was first elected, projects related to stormwater, road paving and sidewalk replacement have been conducted throughout the district. Since he was first elected, 68 drainage projects have been approved in the district with an investment of roughly $63.4 million, according to documents provided by Reyes’ office.
Two big projects underway that the commissioner obtained grant money for are devoted to addressing flooding in East Flagami and Auburndale. The East Flagami project is estimated to cost $30 million and the Auburndale project is estimated at around $20.9 million.
“We have done a bunch of drainage projects that otherwise the neighbors would have continued suffering. They have been suffering for the past 30 years every time it rains,” said Reyes.
Another focus for Reyes during his tenure as commissioner has been creating and enhancing parks in the district. Local parks like Shenandoah Park have gotten a makeover, the Bay of Pigs Memorial Park received a new monument and he’s created new parks like the Swannanoa Mini Park, Gold Star Memorial Mini Park and South Shenandoah Mini Park. Other parks projects underway include enhancements to West End Park and the creation of Fairlawn Community Park.
The other pillar of Reyes’ time as commissioner includes affordable housing investments.
One upcoming project will provide apartment units to low-income tenants, another project is set to provide seniors with affordable housing, and there’s the planned development of six sites for single-family homes designated for first time home buyers, two of which have already been constructed.
When it comes to voting for items at City Hall, Reyes said he votes for what he thinks is best going to help the residents and he follows his conscience, though his commentary from the dais can spark controversy.
Public comments made by Reyes during the 2022 redistricting process have been used to challenge the city’s voting map. The map was invalidated in May, and the federal gerrymandering case is set to go to trial in early 2024. In a public hearing, Reyes said the city was gerrymandering its districts to preserve the City Commission’s racial and ethnic makeup.
Vallina, who is a partner manager at a technology company named Telarus, entered the race a day before the deadline for candidates to get their names on the ballot. He said that his desire to run stems from the belief that Reyes has not managed District 4 equitably.
He said that the area he lives in, Flagami, often misses out on new projects and funds compared to the other wealthier parts of the district and that someone with a new perspective needs to take a look at how the district is being managed.
Vallina, 59, said some of the issues that Flagami is facing, like traffic and potholes, have gone overlooked by Reyes, and said that if he is elected, he’d work on giving proper attention to those problems and allocating funding equally throughout the district. He said he also wants to focus on figuring out ways to improve the lives of the elderly residents in District 4.
Asked for comment, Reyes’ office shared a list of 27 projects in the Flagami area on issues such as stormwater management, parks and road maintenance. “My track record above shows my investment in Flagami,” Reyes said in an email to the Herald. “What is shown by Mr. Vallina’s statement is his disconnect with what happens in our community.”
Vallina also said his time at Telarus has given him experience with project and business management, and that he would also use his expertise in technology to work towards innovative solutions.
Vallina didn’t have a direct plan on how to solve the issues he brought up, but he says his focus will be on making sure the district is served equally.
“I have to see how the district is being managed so that I can apply corrections, see how the money is being spent, which I have access to now, and that will help me obviously budget correctly for the whole district, not just areas. And then third, make sure that we have a level playing field across the district,” said Vallina.
Vallina resides in his family home in Flagami and is a father to three children. Vallina also runs a nonprofit organization, Florida Wildlife Kids Conservation Foundation, where he works to connect children with nature and wildlife through the exotic animals that he owns. At his house he says that he has animals like lemurs, pythons, foxes, alligators and more. In 2011, according to NBC6, one of his alligators escaped into his neighbor’s yard.
He says he’s been getting the word out about his campaign with his website and social media platforms, though it’s unclear if he will have the money to operate a functional campaign. Campaign treasurer reports show that, beyond the $426.97 he had loaned his campaign, he had yet to convince a single supporter to contribute money to his campaign as of Oct. 20.
A background check of Vallina showed that he had a handful of old charges on his criminal record, was previously sued for indebtedness and had to pay back a federal tax lien.
In 1983, Vallina faced criminal charges in Miami-Dade, where on one occasion he was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and loitering, and in a separate incident he was charged with grand theft and resisting arrest from an officer.
He says that the concealed-weapon and loitering charges happened because he was stopped by an officer while he was waiting outside of a friend’s school and that he had a broken BB gun in his car. He says he served community service hours.
For his grand theft charge, the Miami-Dade court dockets show that adjudication was withheld and he served probation.
Vallina also said that he was charged for drug trafficking in Georgia in the 90s. He said he participated in a rehabilitation program, served probation, and was later pardoned for the charge. The Miami Herald was unable to confirm the existence of the case through public records.
Vallina said he has since taken accountability for his actions and that his behavior during that period of his life was a byproduct of a tumultuous home life and looking for acceptance from the wrong people at a young age.
“I don’t think that anything happens in one day, it’s little mistakes, little by little,” said Vallina.
“I was messing with drugs because of the people, they hang out in a group and it’s like a family. They’ll turn on each other in a heartbeat, but at the time, those are your friends, your best friends and that’s what I was doing,” he said.
In 2002 and 2003, Vallina was sued two different times for indebtedness, all of which he said has been settled and paid back. He owed a debt collection agency $2,580.85 and he owed American Express $3,287 for a company credit card bill that he says he was made responsible for once the company closed down. In 2004, he had a federal tax lien for $12,541 that he owed to the IRS, which he says he’s resolved.
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.