Presidential candidates chase campaign cash around Miami art fair

Opening day at Art Basel Miami Beach Convention Center last year.
Opening day at Art Basel Miami Beach Convention Center last year. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Ah, to be among the glitterati who will descend this week on Art Basel Miami Beach. Nibbling on canapés. Clinking glasses of bubbly. Perusing modern masterpieces. And … writing checks to politicians?

That’s the hope of several 2016 presidential candidates who, on purpose or by happenstance, have scheduled fundraising receptions to coincide with the annual art fair that swells the ranks of South Florida’s moneyed elite.

Republican Jeb Bush, who lives in Coral Gables, is the only one planning an art-themed affair Saturday — “Pop Art, Politics & Jeb” — organized by friend and Miami celeb artist Romero Britto, complete with a custom-made Britto portrait of the candidate with a background of white stars and blue-and-red stripes. On Friday night, Bush donors will gather for a $1,000-a-head reception on Key Biscayne.

Democrat Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and sometime guitar player, will appear Wednesday at a $250-a-head fundraiser with live music at a waterfront Miami Beach home so close to the fair that an email inviting donors reads, “If you are heading to Art Basel after, their house is right down the street from the Convention Center.” (About a mile away, but who’s counting?)

And Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, plans to be in town Tuesday, raising money in Miami Beach ($1,000 a head) and Pinecrest ($500) in a pair of receptions that fall the day before Art Basel opens its doors to invitation-only VIPs.

The fair itself isn’t involved in any political events. But has the Art Basel crowd — gasp! — gone political?

“I don’t think so,” said Ben Pollara, a Clinton fundraiser from Coral Gables. “Because when people come here for Art Basel, they come here for Art Basel. They’re here to spend money on art, not the Clinton campaign.”

When people come here for Art Basel, they come here for Art Basel. They’re here to spend money on art, not the Clinton campaign.

Ben Pollara, Hillary Clinton fundraiser

Clinton’s schedule is dictated by “a lot of other things” more important to her campaign than an art fair, he said, noting candidates’ upcoming fundraising deadline: “It’s just that it’s the end of the year: You only have so many fundraising weeks left, and one of them happens to be during Art Basel. It’s, ‘Oh, s---, Dec. 31 is around the corner.’ 

Basel draws fans from outside Florida — who can attend political fundraisers back home — and from outside the country — who are barred by U.S. law from contributing to campaigns here.

Locally, builders and investment banks have long used Basel to woo high-end clients. Politicians’ foray into the festivities, however, is a new development.

“There’s been so much happening at Art Basel over the years that nothing surprises me,” said Norman Braman, the billionaire auto dealer and dedicated art collector who is one of the fathers of Art Basel Miami Beach. “The fair draws people from all over the world and all over the United States. There’s a million events and a million parties.”

“I don’t think it bothers anybody” if presidential candidates are trying to get in on the action, added Braman, a top donor to Republican Marco Rubio. “Some of these people that are coming here are obviously very involved politically.”

Some of these people that are coming here are obviously very involved politically.

Norman Braman, Marco Rubio donor

Braman isn’t partaking in the week’s politics, having hosted a fundraiser for Rubio at the Deauville Beach Resort in mid-November that organizers say amassed half a million dollars. In contrast, on the second day Art Basel is open to the general public, Rubio will attend a $20-a-head community rally Saturday in his hometown of West Miami. “We’re doing a fundraiser for the people,” quipped Rubio backer Bernie Navarro of Coral Gables. (Bush held a similar grassroots event in Sweetwater in May.)

With the first primaries taking place in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in February, appearances by presidential candidates in Florida could be limited until closer to the state’s March 15 election.

Details are scarce for Britto’s Bush pop-art event, which was made public when U.S. News & World Report published a 112-slide presentation that Bush’s campaign had given donors in Houston last month. Neither the campaign nor Britto’s spokeswoman would elaborate for this story. Bush’s wife, Columba, is a longtime arts patron, and Britto is a member of Bush’s Hispanic and Miami-Dade campaign leadership teams.

O’Malley’s fundraiser, co-hosted by former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, comes as the candidate has accepted public financing — a move that usually signals a campaign’s end is near, though Diaz said he’s not worried. Clinton, for her part, is leading the Democratic money race. Her Miami Beach reception is aimed specifically at LGBT supporters; the one in Pinecrest offers a discount for young professionals.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Clinton friend, said he may drop by the first gathering. He said political interest in his city is to be expected amid Art Basel’s affluence.

“It’s a little bit like bees to honey,” he said. “They’re going to swarm.”

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