Michael Góngora Hopes to Become Miami Beach’s First Openly Gay Mayor
He may have a baby face, but he's a force to be reckoned with.
Michael Góngora, 43, has risen the ranks of Miami Beach politics, first helping with a campaign and now in the race for the seat of mayor in November. Not just an ordinary race, his win could make history with Miami Beach voting in its first openly gay mayor in the battlegrounds of hate and bigotry in the days of Anita Bryant.
"He feels that he's at a point and he really wanted to go for it. He felt he would be more effective running for mayor than he would be for running for city commission again, which I agree with and I completely support," said his step sister, Maya Sherrill.
A lifelong Floridian, Góngora was born in Coral Gables to a Cuban father and a mother from Birmingham, Ala. The two married young, so Góngora's paternal grandmother cared for him while his parents worked. She taught him Spanish and his grandfather would tell him stories of living in Cuba as a businessman and a city commissioner.
"I grew up very close to my cousins and my uncle and my aunt. When I was a little boy my grandparents actually owned a duplex, and my uncle and my aunt and my two older cousins lived in the duplex so I grew up spending a lot of time with them," he remembers.
His parents divorced when he was young, and during high school Góngora moved with his mother to St. Petersburg where he graduated from Lakewood High School. There, he also spent more time with his step sister, Maya Sherrill, who is only three weeks younger than him (leading to claims that they're twins). The two had grown up spending weekends together, and when she joined him at Lakewood High, they became even closer.
"I had been in a very small town and he was just so wonderful, showing me around and everything," Sherrill said.
It was also during their high school years that Sherrill noticed they had similar tastes, like a love of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. She suspected that he was gay, and was right.
"He came out to me at the end of high school right when he graduated and so he had been out with me for a while."
After high school, Góngora moved back to Coral Gables to live with his father and attend the University of Miami. There, he lead what he called a "double life," hiding his sexuality from his family but meeting men while he was out on the town. After all, he grew up going to a Christian school, his father was a conservative Cuban man, and his mother was from the South and the daughter of an Assemblies of God preacher. It wasn't until he was 21 that he was outed to his parents - by accident.
Sherrill and Góngora went to St. Petersburg for Mother's Day weekend, which included a night out. Góngora gave his number to a man, who ended up calling his mother's house and leaving a message while the three of them were out to brunch.
"When we came home we were listening to the messages and I had a message from a male with I guess a somewhat effeminate sounding voice," Góngora laughed. "My mother was like, 'Who is that? It doesn't sound like a very nice person.'"
According to Góngora, sensing the tension in the room, Sherrill blurted out, "Come on, we all know he's gay."
"I remember that. I just didn't remember me being quite so obnoxious about it," his sister said about the incident. "I didn't mean to blow him out of the water, but I guess I just didn't want it to to be uncomfortable for him, you know? I wanted it to be OK."
The siblings' mother ended the conversation and refused to discuss it. While Góngora drove back home to Coral Gables, she called his father to tell him the news. To Góngora's surprise, his father easily accepted the news. Today, both parents completely embrace their son and his sexuality.
As a practicing attorney, Góngora was president of the Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce during the 2001 election cycle. A Cuban county commissioner suggested that Góngora run for the Miami Beach Commission. Although he didn't throw his hat in the ring, he studied the election and ended up supporting the man he would have run against. Becoming a part of city politics, he was appointed to the city's Community Development Advisory Committee.
"I never realized I had a passion for public service until that time," he said. "I don't know if it's because I'm single and don't have children and this is a way for me to give back, but I find it very rewarding and very fulfilling."
After his appointment to the Community Development Advisory Committee, Góngora became deeply involved in the city; he soon became a part of the Design Review Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, and then a special magistrate for the county. In 2006, he decided to try his hand at politics and joined the race for Miami Beach commissioner. He won 35 percent of the vote, but per city law, the winner must have at least 50 percent or the top two move on to a run off. It was between him and Deede Weithorn, and the two were invited to local journalist Jim DeFede's morning radio show to discuss the election and city issues. At that time, Góngora was openly gay, but didn't discuss it while serving on boards or during the campaign.
"At the time we were bitter enemies," Góngora said of Weithorn. "We're on this radio show and she was - I can tell - looking for a way to kind of out me because I had been pretty closeted in my campaign by not mentioning it."
Weithorn claimed Góngora had issues with women, which Góngora refuted. Finally, "she just kind of blurted it out. She was like, 'You have an issue with women because you're gay.'"
A number of Góngora's gay friends and gay activists were upset by what transpired on the show, but it ended up sending the LGBT community to the polls. He won the election, as did Weithorn a few years later, and today he considers her "a good friend of mine."
Winning the election, Góngora became Miami Beach's first openly gay politician and the press ate it up, writing profiles and always adding in stories that he is openly gay.
"I felt that the press was primarily focused on me being gay more so than my qualifications, my accomplishments and my ideas," he said. "But I embraced it and I've since come to realize how important it was to have somebody openly gay be elected, although there have been a number of gay and lesbian candidates over the years for Miami Beach public office."
"I've demonstrated that it's OK that I'm gay, that doesn't mean that I'm going to just focus solely on LGBT issues. I'm bright, I read my agenda, and I've shown that gay people have the same concerns that straight people have."
Now, he is serving his second term as city commissioner with one of his proudest moments being the sponsor of the city's tax equity ordinance for domestic partners.
"I am not sure how he manages what are essentially two full time jobs, but he does," Rosa de la Camara, Góngora's boss at Becker & Poliakoff, wrote in an email. "He somehow manages to combine both parts of his life very efficiently."
Now, after two terms as commissioner, Góngora is in the run for taking the top seat as mayor of the city.
"Prior to his announcing it, I certainly encouraged him to run for mayor. I think anybody who knew him wanted him to run for mayor," said Jackie LaLonde, a friend and his appointee to the Charter Review Board. "The other candidates, in my mind, some of them have institutional knowledge but they lack compassion and caring about their citizenry. Instead they care about one institutional block, which might be the business folks. So for me, Michael cares about everybody and that's important."
LaLonde met Góngora while he was running for a second term when the South of Fifth K9 Association was working to get a dog park in its neighborhood. Facing opposition, Góngora took on the task and was "instrumental" in getting a dog park in South Pointe Park. She then encountered Góngora again as a condo board attorney dealing with two cases in her neighborhood.
"I'm not proud of this, but I was a classic South Beach apathetic voter who didn't really get engaged in any sort of civic issues whatsoever," LaLonde said of her days before getting involved in the city. "He just kind of showed me that if you do get engaged that you can change your life and certainly change and better the life of many different constituents.
In his campaign, he's kicked it old school going door-to-door to talk to residents about his run and what issues are on their mind. When she can, his sister comes along.
"It's just really good they see what his heart is and he's seriously committed... sometimes we would go to a door and we would be there for 40 minutes," Sherrill said. "It's a lot of work when you do these elections. It turns everything upside down but you all just pull together and have to make it happen."
Should he win the election, he'll make history in the city as its first openly gay mayor. He's already worked with a plethora of LGBT groups: Aqua Foundation, Gay Pride Committee, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the Winter Party, Trevor Project, SAVE Dade, Equality Florida, and Unity Coalition. However, none of his top three issues he wants to tackle are aimed at the LGBT community specifically (see our sidebar of the race), as his goals go beyond just the city. As mayor, he would like to be a voice for the city to work on statewide and national issues, such as gay marriage, employment discrimination, and immigration reform.
"Miami Beach is already the most progressive community in the state and we are a leader when it comes to all types of diversity issues," he said. "Unfortunately I can't as the mayor implement changes within the city because those are state and federal issues but I can be a voice for our community and I'll travel to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. and wherever I need to to help effectuate these important changes."
For LaLonde, who is a lesbian, having Góngora as mayor would not only do the city good in all arenas, but it would be an important landmark in the LGBT movement. Personally, she has seen how far South Florida has come.
"As a lesbian, I would absolutely like to see a nail put in the coffin of Anita Bryant. I lived through that, I had friends who were teachers during that time. It was a horrifying, terrifying witch hunt whose permutations lasted for 40-something years. Is it time to put a nail in that coffin? You betcha, and from my perspective, it's the most important person we could elect from that vantage point."
Occupation: Tennis player at Yale University, stand up comedian
Platform: Lower taxes, renovate Miami Beach Convention Center, end Urban Beach Weekend, scale back the sweetheart city employee pension deals, keep clubs open until 5 a.m., decriminalize marijuana, end government corruption, make Miami Beach first city in Florida to legalize gay marriage.
Platform: Complete the city's sustainability plan and the stormwater master plan, see through the Miami Beach Convention Center development, create mass transit to the mainland.
David P. Hundley
Occupation: Realtor and builder
Platform: "As my candidacy moves forward the change I will want to make is the change that resonates from my conversations with other residents."
Occupation: CEO of Royal Media Partners
Platform: Clean up corruption, fix street flooding, reform city finances, put priority on customer service.
Occupation: President and CEO of Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, Miami Beach commissioner, former financial planner,
Platform: Restore accountability and trust in government, enhance neighborhoods, reduce traffic congestion, strengthen local economy, support arts and culture, invest in public education, continue city sustainability.
Sites: JerryLibbin.com and Facebook.com/JerryLibbin4Mayor