Miami Herald: After a life of social work, Levine Cava takes a seat of power

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A bearded man at the far side of the intersection leans on crutches, holding a sign asking for help. His plight prompts a brief discourse on a frayed national safety net by Daniella Levine Cava.

“Before Reagan, there were programs,” she says from the front seat of an aide’s car waiting at the red light. “What’s this guy going to do? This is probably a person who is down and out in all sorts of ways. The little bit of money people give him probably makes a big difference in his life.”

The left wing of Miami-Dade’s political establishment has high expectations for Levine Cava, 59, as she begins her first full week as a county commissioner. A veteran of the county’s social-services network, she received significant backing from the Democratic Party and labor unions in her District 8 win over conservative incumbent Lynda Bell.

With the flip of Bell’s seat from red to blue, the officially non-partisan commission now has six Republicans and six Democrats. Xavier Suarez, an independent, rounds out the 13-member panel. In office since early last week, Levine Cava takes center stage Monday for the commission’s official installation ceremony.

“She’s been around long enough. She understands,” said Dwight Bullard, a Florida senator and chairman of the county’s Democratic Party. “If someone is talking about firing police officers or closing libraries, she can be someone to look at the budget and say: Why are we robbing Peter to pay Paul?”

Best known as the director of Catalyst Miami, a non-profit centered on poverty programs and empowerment, Levine Cava proved herself a political force in a race where she was attacked for her non-profit salary, District 8 credentials and Catalyst’s position in the Marlins Park debate.

She faced a record fund-raising haul by Bell, whose reelection effort brought in about $960,000 — including significant contributions from county contractors, developers and lobbyists. Bell also received fundraising help from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a fellow Republican.

An heir to a wealthy New York family , Levine Cava quit her job to run full time and bought a house in District 8 just before she filed. Her name changed, too, with the woman who long went by Daniella Levine opting to also use her husband’s Spanish-sounding last name in a district where Hispanics make up about 40 percent of the electorate.

Her campaign account showed $550,000 raised, with more than a third of it going to polished television ads by a Chicago firm often tapped for congressional campaigns. Campaign records show backing from some prominent names in Miami and beyond. There’s Brian Bilzin and Robert Traurig, founders of two of Miami’s top law firms; children’s advocate David Lawrence; former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. and even Alice Rivlin, once Bill Clinton’s budget chief. Levine Cava and her husband, Robert, a Coral Gables doctor, donated about $25,000 themselves.

Levine Cava said donations to an allied state committee brought the full tally closer to $700,000 — about $77 for per vote she received in District 8, a jurisdiction shaped like a bow tie that touches the suburbs of West Kendall, the prosperous neighborhoods of Palmetto Bay and the farms of Redland.

New York lawyer and philanthropist George Jaffin was Levine Cava’s grandfather, and her $3 million net worth makes her the wealthiest commissioner — if not the richest official in county government. But she sees her career advocating for the downtrodden as a boon in her new role.

Levine Cava doubts any county commissioner has been to as many budget hearings as she has. When she saw the man begging motorists for help, she noted Miami-Dade has strong programs for the homeless but weaker offerings for people one rung up the poverty scale.

Miami wasn’t a good fit for the Columbia Law graduate when she moved down from New York in the early 1980s to join her future husband, then a young doctor in his father’s practice.

“I have to say I lived here for the first 10 years wanting to leave,” said Levine Cava, who also earned a master’s from Columbia in social work. “It was a very conservative, reactionary place at the time. And not a very giving, caring place. There was a lot of wealth. But it wasn’t being channeled in very philanthropic ways.”

Her outlook changed after Hurricane Andrew, when she saw a community energize itself to reverse the 1992 storm’s devastation. Then a mother of two working for the office that protects children’s legal rights, Levine Cava said she wanted to be a part of the recovery. “The level of destruction was so mind-boggling,” she said. “I was so desperate to find a way to be helpful.”

Florida’s welfare agency tapped her to help Miami-Dade’s foster program, pulling together a team of 50 people to track down children who needed aid or new homes. “We had a backlog of 5,000 cases,” she said.

Soon, she was hired to run the entire child-welfare program in Miami-Dade. “It was very difficult. It was the first time I was really inside a big bureaucracy. I just hit roadblock upon roadblock.”

In 1995 she formed the Human Services Coalition of Dade County. Renamed Catalyst Miami about five years ago, the nonprofit combines social services with advocacy workshops that encourage people to be more engaged in their communities, schools and government.

As an elected official, she writes of the need for “bridging social capital” in District 8 with a process of “shared visioning” and instructing her staff to make sure “that we show our residents that their voice matters, and that they are the key to the solutions.”

After winning, Levine Cava asked each of the commissioners to meet with her, sessions that Sunshine laws required be open to the public. “I don’t recall any commissioner going to that length,” Commissioner Dennis Moss, in office since 1993. “I thought it was a very good gesture on her part.”

When she had commission business cards printed, Levine Cava included her personal cellphone. She participates in regular telephone sessions with a leadership coach, and several years ago set a personal goal of simply remaining calm. She credits her knack for remembering names with a regimen of remaining present during introductions. “As I heard on NPR,” she said of a recent radio story touting the value of focus, “there really is no such thing as multitasking.”

Levine Cava won by 681 votes out of 17,483 cast. She had the advantage of running in a district that liberal stalwart Katy Sorenson✔ held for 16 years before retiring in 2010. Bell’s win was considered an upset in a district where Democrats make up 40 percent of the electorate and Republicans just 30 percent.

A committee backing Bell ran ads saying Levine Cava earned $500,000 from Catalyst (the fine print said the figure was a 10-year total) and touting seemingly favorable comments a Catalyst executive made about the unpopular Marlins deal in 2009 (Levine Cava called it a distortion, since the executive had signed up to speak against the stadium).

Levine Cava said the Marlins attack made her the most nervous. “I could tell a lot of people thought it was true,” she said.

Bell also branded Levine Cava an opportunist from another district who changed her name and address to run.

Throughout her career, the new commissioner went by “Daniella Levine” — the name used in tax returns for Catalyst, in biographies that accompanied her speaking engagements, and on the driver’s license she included as part of her campaign filing papers.

“I did think it would communicate that I spoke Spanish — even though it’s not a Spanish name, it’s an Italian name,” she said last week. She added that the weightiness of public office also prompted her to use Cava. “This is my legal name.”

Bell, a former Homestead mayor, did not respond to an interview request for this article.

The Cavas bought a house in District 8 about two months before she filed to run, spending $1 million on a 5,000-square foot home in Palmetto Bay with three bedrooms and three bathrooms. They’re renting out their longtime Coral Gables home, in Commissioner Suarez’s district, and Levine Cava said it was time for a move.

“Our children were grown and gone,” she said, and later noted the new home’s actual living area measures just under 2,500 square feet without the garage. “It was just sort of a confluence of circumstances. I guess to say: We were open to it.”

As she transitions to elected official, Levine Cava touches on the same environmental priorities that helped Sorenson hold the seat over two decades but are sure to rankle the county’s pro-growth constituencies. At a recent meeting with Gimenez, Levine Cava said she raised the idea of new residential-construction guidelines to deal with higher sea levels. Her first press release touted a family Everglades trip that she linked to another sea-level issue: salt-water intrusion into the county’s aquifer.

She’s also positioning herself as District 8’s top networker, with an interest in cobbling together initatives outside the county’s legislative process. At a recent lunch with a banker friend, conversation turned to a Redland group that needed financing to create a commercial kitchen for local produce growers. Amid Perricone’s noontime din, Levine Cava was on the phone arranging a tour.

“She knows a huge amount of people,” said Jane Gilbert, the friend who heads up Wells Fargo’s local philanthropy efforts. “And she just loves convening people.”

Weeks after the lunch, Gilbert joined a trio of community advocates in the battered interior of the Redland Farm Life School. Miami-Dade’s newest commissioner was there, too — only three hours after being sworn in during a private ceremony on Tuesday.

At the school, five placards showing an architect’s vision for the overgrown compound rested on a breezeway wall. The cardboard was no match for cold gusts sweeping through, and Levine Cava would crouch down to put them back in place each time they fell.

“This is what I wanted to happen. I wanted Jane to fall in love with the project,” Levine Cava said later as Gilbert conferred with the Farm Life group . “This is where I excel.”

“I think she is in her element,” Sorenson said. “She’s hungry for knowledge and experience.”

Levine Cava found her community ties only got her so far on the fund-raising circuit. While she enjoyed calling in favors during the campaign from philanthropic and social circles, she also saw those connections fail her.

In early 2014, she donned a campaign name-tag and went solo to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. In the lobby, she approached Biltmore owner Gene Prescott, who has supported candidates from both parties but usually gives more to Democrats. Prescott told Levine Cava he couldn’t help since he was friendly with Bell.

“He was very clear: Once I’m an incumbent, he would support me,” Levine Cava recalled. Prescott, who is active with the county’s tax-funded tourism board, declined to comment.

Levine Cava said the pattern repeated on fund-raising calls, when business leaders who she knew favored her politics still wouldn’t risk defying an incumbent commissioner. “That was a very surprising thing in the race: People really voted their pocketbooks rather than their ideals.”

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