The Biscayne Times

Aug 17th
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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
December 2018

Jason Pizzo plans a running start as state senator for Biscayne Times territory

JPIZZO_1ason Pizzo, age 42, doesn’t mince words. Florida, he declares, needs “tough love” that is “expensive, inconvenient, and difficult.” He was sworn in November 20 for a four-year term as the Florida State senator for District 38, replacing scandal-plagued Daphne Campbell.

The district, whose boundaries were redrawn in 2016, is among the most geographically, economically, and racially diverse anywhere, running from I-395 to the Broward County line, and from the Atlantic Ocean to jagged boundaries well west of I-95. It includes 500,000 people from Golden Beach to Miami Beach, from Aventura to Overtown, and the entire Biscayne Corridor north of downtown. Within its borders sit the $50 million-plus mansions of Indian Creek and the crime-ridden projects of Liberty Square and Sugarhill Apartments.

Its territory covers the largest Haitian-American population in the U.S., and is roughly 35 percent black, 35 percent Hispanic, and 26 percent non-Hispanic white. While largely blue -- often deep blue – it’s politically diverse, too. Rarefied precincts of Bal Harbour, Indian Creek, Golden Beach, and sections of Sunny Isles Beach swung for Trump in 2016, but the varying shades of blue nearly everywhere else make the district a nonstarter overall for any Republican candidate.


Pizzo grew up in central New Jersey, where his father accumulated a fortune building and owning apartments and houses, bringing in his sons and affording wealth and passive income. The younger Pizzo moved to Miami in 2007 to attend law school at the University of Miami, just after earning his M.S. in real estate development from Columbia University. He spent five busy years as a state prosecutor from 2011-2015, earning a reputation in the courtroom and the streets as a pit bull with a high conviction rate and zeal for investigations.

When he decided to move into politics, he spent $1 million of his own money in two elections against Campbell, whose conservative votes on abortion, gay rights, charter schools, and school prayer left her out of step with the Democratic Party. Pizzo emphasized public safety, climate change, a living wage for workers, and improved education and infrastructure.

In 2016 he lost narrowly to Campbell in a field of six candidates, but beat her 54-46 percent in the August 28, 2018, primary. With no Republicans running, the election by default was a rare Florida open primary, with Republicans and independents eligible to vote. Pizzo’s victory, while decisive, was not universally embraced, particularly among many who were dismayed to lose the only Haitian-American in the state senate.

Pizzo lives in North Miami Beach’s Eastern Shores neighborhood with his wife, April, and twin 12-year-old sons. The BT interviewed him by telephone and follow-up e-mail exchanges November 16 and 17, as he was undergoing orientation in Tallahassee. The questions and answers that follow are excerpted from those interviews.


PIZZO_3Why is a wealthy white liberal like yourself without electoral experience the best representative for District 38?

A better question might be: Why is a non-native Floridian from the Northeast who hasn’t held elective office best equipped for this job? You always want a fresh opinion on anything. I came here as a disinterested third party and became a prosecutor, knocking on doors at all hours at crime scenes in Liberty City and Overtown. This gave me a chance to take a hard look at what is necessary for change. A certain measure of wealth affords you the transparency and clear window to do good. It is a comfort to be insulated from a local dynasty, influence, and lobbyists. A senator makes $29,671, and it’s designated as a part-time position. But it’s really like parenting. If you do it, it’s got to be a full-time job.


How are you setting up your office, and how will your constituent service differ from that of your predecessor?

We’re setting up three offices. Our main office is the storefront at 5582 NE 4th Ct., Suite 7B, on the Soyka property, with free parking for visitors and accessible on bus lines from Overtown, Liberty City, or the Biscayne Corridor, and near Little Haiti.

Aventura Mayor Enid Weisman didn’t hesitate to offer a satellite space in Aventura City Hall, and Miami Beach has also offered us a space we can use at 1701 Meridian Ave., Suite 402B. We’ll use each satellite one day a week, and the main office the other three. Senators get a stipend of $2900 a month for offices, about the same as Polk or Hardee counties. In Miami, this is not easy. I’m also lucky to have my prolific fellow prosecutor and best buddy Maggie [Margarita] Gerson as chief of staff. She’s taking a big pay cut but is fully onboard. Senator Campbell had one office on 168th Street near her home. We want to make ourselves as available and convenient for residents as possible.


In what specific ways would you differentiate yourself from Sen. Daphne Campbell?

I believe everyone is truly equal. Where this axiom is not respected, it takes legislative protection to do so. My predecessor believed otherwise and sought to deny the rights of parenthood, choice, and protections to particular individuals based on beliefs that have no place in the world where I’m raising my children. We’ll reestablish ethics and transparency to our district, and advocate for all constituents.


Whom are you looking to for guidance? What models have you found?

Bobby Kennedy is my political hero. YouTube or read his 10-minute speech “On the Mindless Menace of Violence” in Cleveland the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I have read it in church the last two years, and it is as relevant as ever. Several past and current legislators have been gracious with their time and advice, but I’ve been reading more than reaching out, familiarizing myself with the rules of the Senate, bill drafting, and watching recordings of Senate committee meetings and sessions, so that I can hit the ground running. Others seem to say one thing at home and another once inside the Senate chamber. I aim to bring the same intensity of purpose and message to Tallahassee that we displayed on the campaign trail.


With Ron DeSantis as governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, how can you and other Democrats assert influence over a Republican-controlled government?

Many statewide races, as evidenced by recounts, were won by very narrow margins. That should be a stern message to all that we need to coalesce to get anything done. The voters should not accept another two to four years of finger-pointing. To make it better, you list or articulate the top priorities for your constituents and find some overlap between the two lists. With so much acrimony, nothing is getting done, and this will continue. What the public needs to see right now is if Republicans and Democrats can get together and order a pizza. Can they travel in the same car to an appointment?

[BT update: Since print publication, Pizzo has been assigned Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, Community Affairs, Criminal Justice, Finance and Tax, and Military and Veterans and Space.]

Committee work starts December 11, and I’ve ranked my top four priorities as criminal justice, education, community affairs, and environmental preservation and conservation. Community affairs is an important clearinghouse and catch-all for work going through the Senate. There are certainly enough bipartisan and nonpartisan issues that have gone unfunded or ignored where we can find common ground. Environmental protection, community safety, and access to affordable housing and health care shouldn’t meet with unnecessary headwinds. That which affects public safety, children, and the environment is nonpartisan. The water table is rising for everybody, Democrat and Republican. It is ecumenical.


Your background is in housing, and you have campaigned on criminal justice, education, and access to affordable housing. How do you relate them?

As a prosecutor, I was out on the streets nearly every day for nearly five years, tried 52 trials to verdict and thousands of cases in my files, and saw so much of what is wrong. Crime, affordable housing, and education are a connective tissue. I have many legislative criminal justice ideas of a technical nature, but need to see the process more. I can say that, compared with other states, Florida criminal law is more reactive than proactive. A 12-year-old in Liberty City deserves the same opportunity as a 12-year-old in a McMansion near where I live in Eastern Shores. It costs $7400 to educate a child in Florida, and $28,000 to incarcerate that same child. It should be a no-brainer. Raise that investment to $10,000 and you’ll more than see a return.


How can you and other members of the Miami-Dade delegation (Republican and Democrat) assert influence over the disproportional amount of state funding going to other parts of the state?

I like math, because it has only one correct answer. Here’s one example. If you have beach hotel rooms with an average rack rate $500 a night throwing off big bed taxes, that’s a huge impact for the state. But if you close the beach for five days because of raw sewage, you’re going to cancel Thanksgiving week or vacation, and go somewhere else. If Miami-Dade legislators make a concerted effort to demonstrate the geographic areas generating the most substantial revenues, I believe we can establish proportional reciprocity for our region.

The Sadowski Housing Trust Fund needs to stop being raided to balance the state budget and instead be used for desperately needed affordable housing in Miami-Dade. [Note: The trust fund allocates $250 million a year for that purpose.] Governor Scott said when $90 million had been allocated, we had met our affordable housing needs.

I am a fan of inclusionary zoning. You put up a 30-story high-rise, and you make 20 percent of the housing affordable. That’s how we do it in New York and New Jersey. In Miami, most condo developers are not long-term holders. They build and flip. And affordable housing here is a desperate need. It’s pretty simple economics that if you’re able to provide affordable housing and decent education for every class of citizen, it behooves everybody. More than half of the constituents in this district are a paycheck away from insolvency.


On climate change and the environment, what can the legislature do?

Our region desperately needs infrastructure plans and improvements, which should be ready to go online as the real estate market experiences its next downturn. Miami-Dade has almost 92,000 homes and businesses still on septic, which costs $3.3 billion to convert. Simple economics dictate that it is in everyone’s interest to maintain assessed values, as the rising water table is dangerously close to septic fields.

Seawalls, new sanitary sewer pipes, and beach renourishment are paramount, and the inevitable displacement of some homeowners needs to be balanced with the concerns of climate gentrification. It’s a subsurface Chernobyl. What percentage of people are really doing things for a 20-year timeline? These are tough-love measures. They are expensive, inconvenient, and difficult.

We are a bloated, out-of-shape region. It’s like chemotherapy. If we don’t do it, we’re effectively going to die.


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