James Bush III won an unexpected victory for the state House seat he formerly held in Miami's 109th District Tuesday.
Bush, 53, won a nine-person contest that included three candidates who outspent him by more than three-to-one, and one opponent who not only had the backing of the incumbent, Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who is term-limited, but also that of former U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek and her son, U.S. Rep Kendrick Meek.
The final result was close, with Bush receiving 28.2 percent of the vote to Cynthia Stafford's 26.9 percent, a margin of just 132 votes. Turnout was a low 15.6 percent countywide, with just 10,602 people casting ballots in the District 109 race.
Bess McElroy, a retired city of Miami human resources administrator, was the only other candidate to finish in double digits, receiving just over 11 percent of the vote.
An exuberant Bush was celebrating with family and friends as the results came in shortly after midnight Tuesday. He said dozens of people had been in and out of the family home throughout the evening, offering support.
Reached overnight Tuesday, a disappointed Stafford said, “The people have spoken I guess.”
She declined further comment. Asked whether she might try to run for office again, Stafford said, “I’m uncertain at this point.”
Despite the slim margin, Bush called the win “a strong mandate for me to run and to continue to work in this district.”
“The best is yet to come,” exclaimed Bush’s wife Bernadine. “Thank God for it.”
Bush, a Baptist minister who held the seat from 1992 until 2000, said residents in the district had long urged him to run again.
“[There] was a strong demand from the citizens of this district,” Bush said. “They felt like they needed to return somebody after the incumbent's term was up that would give them access to the office and show concern for their needs.”
He said he and his wife talked it over, “prayed about it, and we decided that we would answer the call.”
A fundraising flurry in the final month helped Bush raise $14,265 for the race. Meanwhile, Stafford raised $54,309, business owner Barbara Bibas Montero raised $24,440 and loaned her campaign $26,000, and McElroy raised more than $42,000, including a $28,000 loan she made to her own campaign.
Bush seemed to particularly relish defeating Stafford, who had been considered the front-runner.
“I had [former] Congresswoman Carrie Meek, I had Kendrick and I had Dorothy [Bendross] Mindingall all in this race,” he said. “I had somebody calling herself the ‘daughter of the district.’”
Referring to a slate distributed by Meek’s campaign in the closing week called “Kendrick's Quick Picks,” which included Stafford, Bush said, “this was not a ‘quick pick,’ this was a ‘wise pick,’ and as a result of the wise pick, the ‘father of the district’ has won.”
Bush went on to take a veiled swipe at his opponent’s prominent backers.
“I was not handed down a seat by anyone,” he said. “Every seat that I’ve won has been because of my service to the community. This was given to me by the citizens of District 109 because they know my work and commitment to this district and to their concerns and their issues.”
The district includes wealthy portions of Miami Beach, but also some of the county's most economically distressed neighborhoods, including Wynwood, Model City, Brownsville, parts of Liberty City, and Little Haiti.
Photo: James Bush III