Democrats want Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill to run against Gimenez

Ron Magill for Congress?  The celebrity Zoo Miami spokesperson says he's a pretty firm no, but Democrats are trying to recruit him to challenge Rep.  Carlos Gimenez, a Republican former Miami-Dade mayor representing Florida's 26th District.

Ron Magill for Congress? The celebrity Zoo Miami spokesperson says he’s a pretty firm no, but Democrats are trying to recruit him to challenge Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Republican former Miami-Dade mayor representing Florida’s 26th District.

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Ron Magill said he assumed Billy Corben was trying to prank him when the filmmaker got the local celebrity on the phone with a recruiting pitch: Run for Congress and try to unseat Republican Carlos Gimenez in Florida’s 26th District.

“I thought I was being punked,” said Magill, a regular on TV for his job as the primary public ambassador for Miami-Dade County’s Zoo Miami.

But Corben, a longtime Gimenez critic, was serious in the ask, and he had Democratic heavyweights behind him: Miami pollster Fernand Amandi and the former congresswoman who lost to Gimenez in 2020, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

The trio came to Magill’s Kendall home several weeks ago to make their pitch for Magill to enter politics and challenge his former boss, who won his congressional seat in his final days as Miami-Dade County’s mayor in November 2020.

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Ron Magill, taking a day off from his county job as Zoo Miami’s well-known spokesperson, urged county commissioners to reject plans for a residential development on the shuttered Calusa golf course, currently home to birds and other animals. BY DOUGLAS HANKS [email protected]

For now, Magill says he’s a “no” to the recruiting effort, but he did agree to bless Amandi and a poll showing how he might fare against Gimenez, who beat Mucarsel-Powell by four points two years ago.

“They were just telling me stuff I wanted to hear,” Magill recalled in an interview Tuesday. “I told them: ‘You guys are nuts.’ I got the feeling they were just grasping at straws.”

Magill said his conversation with the three centered on the pitch not sounding realistic to him.

“I said, ‘Guys: I’m a zookeeper,'” Magill continued. “I’d have no chance in hell … We settled on: Okay, do the poll. When the poll comes back and shows they’re off their rockers, we’re done.”

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US Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., center, was elected to represent Florida’s 26th Congressional District in November 2020 after nine years as Miami-Dade County’s mayor. Democrats are trying to recruit one of Miami-Dade’s most famous employees, Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill, as a Democratic challenger to Gimenez. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

President Biden’s dismal poll numbers and a wave of incumbent retirements suggest a rough midterm election is ahead for Democrats. The party has largely struck out in recruiting candidates to take on Gimenez and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, the former television reporter who unseated first-term Democrat Donna Shalala in Florida’s District 27 two years ago.

Corben, a longtime Gimenez criticizing, released a statement condemning the Congressman’s Jan. 6 and Jan. 7 votes to void election results in two states Biden won. “The people of D26 deserve a Congressman who will fight for democracy,” Corben wrote, and “who has a lifelong track record of protecting endangered species and the environment…”

He also pointed out Magill lives in District 26, while Gimenez lives in Salazar’s district. (Members of Congress don’t have to live in districts they represent.)

Amandi and Mucarsel-Powell were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

A Magill candidacy would put his own local fame to the test. A regular on television programs, Magill is best known for appearing on screen in a khaki shirt, often with an owl on his shoulder or a sloth hanging from his neck.

He’s famous enough on Spanish-language programs that when he visited Havana in 2015, a customs agent at José Martí International Airport asked if he was the guy from Sábado Gigante.

A conservation advocate, Magill last fall took a day off from his county job to delivery a fiery speech before county commissioners opposing approval of a large development near his home in the Calusa development.

“I know I made some county people pissed for being here today,” he told reporters ahead of a lopsided commission vote approving the project. “Let them come after me.”

Magill, 62, said he switched from the Republican Party to Democrat after President Donald Trump entered the White House.

In the interview, he listed a string of reasons he wouldn’t be a good candidate for Congress, including his focus on conservation as a priority and a lack of familiarity with federal issues.

“My name recognition is for conservation. It’s for animals,” he said. “It’s not for issues that are important to the world now.”

While Magill said he wouldn’t want to put his family through the attack ads a congressional challenge would bring, he said there’s some appeal in possibly being able to bring attention to wildlife priorities as a candidate.

“If I could do something for conservation issues,” he said. “Not even to win. But by running, you can put a focus on things you care about.”

This story was originally published March 1, 2022 5:51 PM.

Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014.
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