Lucky people of Palmetto Bay! You have not one but two newly-elected state representatives looking out for your neighborhood interests in Tallahassee: Rep. Michael Bileca (R, District 117), which encompasses parts of Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay and South Miami and for whom you actually voted, and State Rep. Frank Artiles (R, District 119), whose electors live and vote someplace else entirely.
Artiles is supposed to be living among his constituents, somewhere between Homestead and Sweetwater, and representing their best interests. And he may have violated Florida law by staying in the Palmetto Bay house where he and his wife Aimee have lived for eight years.
The legal residency requirement for a state house candidate is a resident of the state for two years and “an elector and resident of the district upon taking office,” according the to the FAQs on the MyFlorida website. Not sure about this, but Ladra believes that “upon taking office” means Artiles had to be living in the district when he was sworn in Nov. 16. But five months later, he still lives at the yellow 5-bedroom, 3-bath house at 8392 SW 165th St., pictured here, bought in 2003 for $337,000.
Artiles got up from watching the Miami Heat trounce the 76ers on the couch and answered the door in socks and a pair of gym pants when I knocked on the front door about 9:45 p.m. Monday night. (It has to be late or early to establish residency). “Representative Artiles,” I asked, though I recognized him right away. “Yes,” he said. “Can I help you?” I extended my hand, he shook it as I introduced myself and I told him I was a political blogger. “And, um, you are not supposed to be living here,” I said. He answered: “I’m moving to West Kendall next week.” I asked where as I pulled out my little tiny camera (was it too much to hope he would pose next to the house numbers?). But he shut the door, ending the surprise interview (damn, last time I take out a camera so early!) and sprinted behind a wall to what Ladra assumes was the kitchen. There’s a fine line between journalism and stalking, so, after kind of whining a little — “Oh, c’mon. Representative? Why can’t we talk about this?” — I left. We got our confirmation that he still lives there. He was not going to say anything else at that moment. We called him Tuesday but he did not answer. His legislative aide, Cire “Cee” Andino, scolded Ladra for showing up at his house late at night without prior warning. “He’s very upset,” Andino said. And I am not surprised. “You should have made an appointment. That’s not very professional,” she added. Um, actually, it is indeed professional for Ladra to show up unannounced. An appointment would be a spoiler here. He does not want me to write this and she knows it.
Ladra had already passed by the home a few times in the last couple of months after getting tips from two different sources that he was still living outside the district. It wasn’t hard. She lives close by and would just swing down the block on her way to and from the park, the dogfood store, the bank, Flamingo’s Frozen Yogurt or whatever. His Ford Excursion with the U.S. Marines vanity plate was parked regularly in the driveway. A few weeks ago, Ladra rang the doorbell early in the morning before Aimee Artiles had taken their two young daughters to school. She told me that her husband was in Tallahassee. I casually asked where they might move to since they are required to move into the district, and she seemed like they had all the time in the world. She also did not seem eager to move into Sweetwater and Homestead. She told me they might rent in Country Walk or the Twin Lakes area. Andino confirmed Tuesday that they had gone several times to the Twin Lakes area, but that it had been difficult to find a place to rent. “They have been crazy looking for a house,” she said. “He is hardly ever here.”
They are also looking to rent out their home and Ladra imagines that selling the house in this down market might mean a $50,000 loss because the property is assessed today at $290,000.
Several people, including Dem opponent Katie Edwards, who had signed to rent a place in The Redland and had worked at the Dade County Farm Bureau in Homestead for seven years, said Artiles “told a number of people on election day that he had bought a foreclosed house in Country Walk.” Andino says that’s crazy. “They don’t even like Country Walk,” she said, contradicting what Aimee Artiles told us herself. (Note: Ladra worked briefly on the Edwards campaign, never got reimbursed fully for expenses and still believes she would have made a better representative of the people in that district. And take a look at the bills Artiles champions for us: one to repeal prohibitions against sale, use, possession, etc. of clove cigarettes, one to repeal provisions regarding frozen desserts and one that removes the law that requires bicyclists to keep on hand on handlebars at all times — aka the important “Look Ma’, No Hands” act — and one to strengthen the powers of process servers.
We had spoken to Andino before, who said she was under the impression Artiles had until May 1, six months, to move in. That’s not what the law says. And if he thought he was okay, why would Artiles shut the door and run away? Chris Cate, a spokesman with the Florida Division of Elections, helped us find the wording in the state constitution: “Each legislator shall be at least 21 years of age, an elector and resident of the district from which elected and shall have resided in the state for a period of two years prior to election.” I am pretty sure that he has to be an “elector and resident of the district from which elected” by now. I have asked Andino to provide me with whatever proof Artiles had to provide the sergeant at arms upon swearing in (some electeds have to give their voter’s registration or something to prove residency) and is still waiting but will definitely update this post if that happens.
Maybe Ladra will get it on Monday, now that we have an “appointment” with Artiles. Andino said she would get back to me on whether it was at the district office or a Starbucks. I asked if we could meet at his new home in the district. “He’s not going to let you into his home,” she said. Well, I may not normally have interviews at electeds homes, but its relevant this time.
Maybe he can at least provide Ladra with the actual rental agreement or lease, dated prior to this date, to make sure he had already made plans to move, like he told me Monday night, and isn’t doing it now that he doesn’t have a choice since someone is watching. Because there is a possibility Artiles, who has friends working on the redistricting of the legislative seats, hopes they carved a little piece of Palmetto Bay into the 119 pie. There were no boxes and no “for rent” sign outside his house. Only a pretty flag with Tigger to celebrate Easter. Ladra doesn’t know about everyone, but it takes her and her daughter a month to move and the Artiles house is bigger and they have two kids. And they are moving next week? Doesn’t look like it.
I am not picking on Artiles for any other reason than he was easy. He just happens to be the one who got caught this time. Last year, two Broward legislators, House Pro Tem Joe Gibbons and Jim Waldman, were blasted for living outside their districts and not in the homes they had indicated they lived in to comply with the law. A Jacksonville legislator got in similar trouble. And Ladra has heard that there are other elected officials right around South Florida that live outside their districts, even if one or more might keep a sham studio or small apartment where they do not sleep. In fact, this kind of thing has gone on for years, as most people in the campaign cottage industry can tell you. And everyone looks the other way and shrugs at what seems in the 305 like a small trangresion.
It is — and it ain’t. Because it can be manipulated. And what it leads to is professional politicos who shop around for places to pitch their tents and sell their snake oil. Take Paul Crespo, after losing in a Senate primary against David Rivera (R, District 25), he now has thrown his hat into the race for state house in district 102 even though he lives in Coral Gables, not Hialeah. He says he will move into the district if he is elected. But I bet he won’t if he is not. I bet he would never even consider it, which shows how much he cares for those constituents. And that is perfectly legal. But it’s also completely backwards and part of what is wrong with our entire electoral system. Local municipalities require residency minimums before a candidate can qualify for that office. County commission candidates need to live in the district at least six months first. In some cities, the requirement is a year or even two.
That’s how to elect people who are truly local representatives of the people and not stewards of a system that cranks out candidates first and then finds the voters to support them.
This is not like the latest boy band — market the image and the package first, then take care of finding the audience and even the talent. Like other community leaders, candidates for office should come from within the ranks of their own communities.
Only then can we know who they really represent.