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Miami Senate Primary Turns Into Free-For-All

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MIAMI (CBSMiami/NSF) – Bribery, links to a terrorist group and election hijinks are just some of the accusations candidates have hurled at each other in a bitter primary battle in Miami that may wind up costing Democrats a state Senate seat this fall.

The fight has roped in state prosecutors and local police as three Democratic primary contenders vie in the newly redrawn Senate District 40.

Incumbent Sen. Dwight Bullard is being challenged by Andrew Korge, who doesn't live in the district but says he grew up in it, and Ana Rivas Logan, a Republican-turned-Democrat who served a single term in the state House.

The competition is in some respects a political dynasty dispute.

Bullard, a teacher, is the heir to a Miami-Dade County legislative legacy forged by his mother, Larcenia. Dwight Bullard, elected to the Senate in 2012, took over the seat formerly held by his mother, who served two decades in the Legislature. Prior to his election to the Senate, the younger Bullard served in the House in the same seat once held by both his mother and his father.

Korge's father, Chris Korge, is a prominent Democratic fundraiser who is close to presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Rivas Logan, the only Hispanic seeking the nomination, suspended her campaign a month ago but has re-emerged on the scene in the final days before the Aug. 30 primary.

The revamped district leans Democratic and has a Hispanic voting-age population of nearly 75 percent. The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against Republican state Rep. Frank Artiles, who has the backing of Senate leaders and a hefty campaign war chest left virtually undisturbed without a GOP primary challenger.

"It is absolutely fair to say that this is a seat more in play in the general election than my party wants it to be," Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with any of the campaigns, said in a recent interview.

As voters straggled into a public library in Southwest Miami to cast their ballots last weekend, Korge introduced himself in fluent Spanish, pronouncing his last name "Kor-hay," the Hispanic pronunciation of the name that rhymes with "forge" in English.

A voice message on the cell phone Korge uses for the campaign is also in Spanish, a language Bullard doesn't speak.

Korge has blasted Bullard, who also serves as the chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, for not being progressive enough, challenging the senator's contributions from "special interests" including sugar growers and utility companies.

Most recently, Korge, 35, has focused on a trip Bullard took to the Middle East with members of the Dream Defenders, a group affiliated with the Black Lives Matter organization.

Bullard's tour guide was affiliated with the anti-Israel BDS movement, a pro-Palestinian group affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, something Bullard said he was unaware of until news reports raised questions after he returned from the May trip.

"It's just disturbing," Korge said in an interview outside the West Miami Dade Regional Library on Saturday. "This raises a lot of questions … It's concerning that an American elected official should be meeting with members of a terrorist organization."

Bullard said he is "agnostic" about Palestinians and Israel, a hot-button issue in a district with many Jewish voters.

"I am not supporting a terrorist organization nor have I ever nor am I leaning to it," Bullard said in a telephone interview this week. "The reason I went was because I had never been to the region and had been hearing all kinds of issues and concerns related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as to the conditions under which the Palestinians were living."

Earlier in the campaign season, Bullard accused Korge of offering him a $25,000 bribe to try to get him to opt out of running for the seat.

Korge had originally intended to run against state Sen. Anitere Flores in nearby District 39 but, two days before the qualifying deadline, Korge switched to run against Bullard.

Korge accused Bullard of making a deal with Senate leaders not to run against Flores, a close ally of incoming Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Bullard accused Korge of offering him a bribe to stay out of the District 40 race. An investigation by Miami-Dade County prosecutors found no wrongdoing on Korge's part.

Rivas Logan, a former Republican who served in the state House for a term before losing her re-election bid in 2012, has resurfaced during early voting, despite announcing in July that she was suspending her campaign.

Rivas Logan, whose fundraising was eclipsed by Bullard and Korge and the political committees supporting the two men, got into an altercation with Korge outside of an early voting site in Miami last weekend. The police were called, but no one was charged.

Rivas Logan said she took issue with Korge telling voters that their votes for her would not count, which she said was not true because she had never technically withdrawn from the race.

"This guy is very insecure," Rivas Logan said in a telephone interview Friday. "People are using whatever they can to get elected, and running at all costs is not victory."

While Korge has the financial upper-hand in the race, Bullard, who has the support of numerous unions, has a name that is well-known to voters in the district, said Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist from Miami-Dade County.

"No one should dismiss the fact that Dwight Bullard and the Bullard family have been institutional in Miami-Dade County politics and in the Legislature," Book said. "At the end of the day, they don't really have blemishes on their record."

The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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