Daniella Levine Cava’s voyage from activist to political leader

It took county mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava about 10 years to truly fall in love with Miami. 

The Miami-Dade District 8 commissioner arrived here in 1980, a year of massive change in the city. Riots had broken out in Overtown and thousands of migrants flooded in from Cuba and Haiti. The decade that followed was an adventure, to say the least. 

Then came Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  

“That was a time when people came together to really support one another and take care of each other,” she says. “That showed me that there’s true community here.” 

Levine Cava, who is preparing for a Nov. 3 runoff against fellow commissioner Esteban Bovo, is proud of her work on the dais but believes there’s much more ahead in dealing with sea-level rise, traffic, affordability and housing.

“These are matters that cut across the whole county, and they require vision, integrity and results,” she said. “I feel very compelled to step up to address these issues.”

Originally from New York City, the 65-year-old was raised across North and South America, living in Canada, Brazil, Chile, Chicago and eventually back in New York. She attended Yale University, where she held her first elected office as student council president. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1977, she went on to attend Columbia University, where she received her law degree in 1981 and a Master’s degree in social work in 1983.

In 1980, she moved to Miami to join her husband, Dr. Robert Cava, a native who returned to the city to assist at his father’s medical practice. They eventually had two children, Eliza and Edward Cava, whom they raised in Coral Gables. Her children attended Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. They are now in their thirties. Eliza is the conservation director at Audubon Naturalist Society in Washington D.C., and her son Edward, who also goes by Ted, is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

She remembers the move to Miami was supposed to be temporary. “It was hot and buggy when we arrived, and I just wanted to get back in the car,” she said. “It was challenging to get used to living in the tropics, but I’ve come to love it.”

She first worked as an attorney at Legal Services of Greater Miami, representing children with special needs and immigrants. In 1985, she became the legal director of the Guardian Ad Litem Program, where she represented children in the welfare system. 

In 1996, Levine Cava created the Human Services Coalition, now Catalyst Miami, in an effort to help low-income families prosper. She was the president and CEO of the non-profit organization from its founding until she stepped down in December 2013. During her time there, she and her team worked with various companies and nonprofits throughout South Florida to create and launch innovative community-building strategies and boost civic engagement. 

Paola Pierre worked at the Human Services Coalition for 11 years alongside Levine Cava. They *managed a variety of projects and programs, working with the uninsured, affordable housing, disabled people and women’s rights initiatives. “She is the progressive that makes things happen,” said Pierre. She added that the commissioner brought community needs and issues to the table. “She was the one that wanted things to happen to have a better Miami and a better community for us to live in,” she said. 

Having dedicated over 30 years to representing South Florida families, she finally decided at the end of 2013 to run for county commission in District 8, which encompasses Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Homestead and unincorporated areas of South Dade. 

Levine Cava speaking with families about the effects of COVID-19 and how the county can recover from it. (Courtesy of DLC Campaign)

Facing off against incumbent county commissioner Lynda Bell, Levine Cava kicked off her campaign for commissioner in 2014 and won with a 4 percent advantage. “My main reason for running for office is always to restore people’s trust in the government,” she says. “Coming from inside the government, I saw my role as making sure that people’s voices were heard, that people felt that they could trust the decision-making. . . and that they could participate.”

She recalls one of the controversial issues that she dealt with was campaign finance. “People know there’s so much money in politics and they don’t know where it’s all coming from,” she said. “So I got legislation passed [that] requires that any money going to a political committee or a PAC has to be disclosed.”

In 2018, the commissioner was reelected by a landslide, receiving 61 percent of the vote. During her time as a public servant for District 8, Levine Cava began working on some of the same issues she plans on focusing on if she is elected mayor. 

Having raised over $3 million in donations, her campaign has launched seven offices across the county. Her campaign has gained tremendous momentum.“We had a 26% voter turnout in the primary, and we are expecting to see over 80% in the general,” she said. “There are still people who haven’t heard about me at all and are undecided, so it’s that personal contact that can really make a difference.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of thousands of people. The commissioner says she is ready to do something about it both on the public health and economic side. 

Levine Cava speaking to a small business owner about her plans to help them through these difficult times. (Courtesy of DLC Campaign)

“Our businesses were asked to do all kinds of things to adapt and take precautions, and they have done them to a tee,” she said. But, the [state and] county [haven’t] held up their end of the bargain on the public health side.” 

She said she plans to appoint a chief medical officer to guide the county’s decision-making.

She’d also like to implement a program that she began in South Dade to help small businesses and nonprofits in the community.

Taking on the nickname Water Warrior, she has advocated for more environmentally friendly construction practices and reducing our carbon footprint. As a commissioner, she convinced her colleagues to back the Paris Climate Agreement that was abandoned by President Donald Trump. 

“We’ve set very aggressive carbon-eduction goals,” she says. “We are electrifying our bus fleet and the cars that the county uses. We have also created an electric-charging infrastructure.”

Housing is another issue that Levine Cava plans on tackling. “I identify it as a crisis, and I don’t think that is the way the county has treated it,” she said. “What we need is about 100,000 units and we need them quickly.”

Levine Cava believes the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) plan that would ease traffic on six main corridors is an improvement to the present county transit system. But more can be done. “I think there’s a lot on the horizon,” she stated. “And we need people to invest and support these public-transit solutions.”

The two candidates faced off Oct. 3 in a one-hour debate that was held in both Spanish and English at Telemundo and NBC 6 studios in Miramar. There was no studio audience, but the exchanges were sometimes heated. When one of the moderators, Jawan Strader, asked if they could say something nice about one another, Bovo, a conservative Republican, replied, “I know she means well for her community. We just differ in the ways we should approach these things. She has radical ideas for our community that I’m just not down with.”

He attacked a plan that Levine Cava has supported to establish a civilian oversight panel to monitor complaints of alleged police misbehavior, claiming that she wanted to take $7.5 million away from police. 

Levine Cava said that the idea she wants to take money away from police, “is a total lie,” noting that she has voted annually to increase the police budget. “It is simply a scare tactic and it has no basis in fact,” she said, adding that she has lobbied for more policing in the community, not less.

“Our police department has an excellent record,” she said. “The independent civilian panel is an opportunity to improve dialogue, restore trust, and ultimately make policing easier.”

During her final statement for the debate, the commissioner thanked residents of the county for doing their part and making sure others were safe. She also pledged to help small businesses recover from the pandemic, stating, “I stand with you and I will work harder than ever to bring us forward and come back better than ever.” 

She finished her statement off by stating her promise to the county, “I will be honest and I will be focused on solutions that will take us out of these difficult times.” 

The Caplin News will publish profiles of candidates between now and election day, Nov. 3. Next week: a profile of Levine Cava’s opponent, Esteban Bovo. 

Helen Acevedo is an FIU student majoring in broadcast media with a minor in political science and international relations. She is passionate about giving people a platform to tell their truths.