A matchup between a rookie candidate and a veteran lawmaker from a prominent political family wouldn’t normally draw much attention.
But the state House race between Jose Javier Rodriguez and Alex Diaz de la Portilla is quickly becoming among this season’s most watched.
The Democratic Party has pinned its hopes on newcomer Rodriguez to keep the Miami district in Democratic hands. And the results come Nov. 6 could be a bellwether for how Democrats perform across the state.
Rodriguez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has raised more than $175,000, including $27,000 in in-kind contributions from the party. Florida Democrats have also bankrolled a flurry of campaign mailers touting Rodriguez and attacking Diaz de la Portilla.
“We’ve got a fresh-faced newcomer versus a Republican retread with a history of siding with special interests,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said. “This race is in play and we’re going to play hard.”
Still, Rodriguez, 34, has an uphill climb.
Diaz de la Portilla is a savvy political strategist who served six years in the state House and 10 years in the state Senate. He hasn’t raised as much campaign money as Rodriguez, but he has built-in name recognition and an established base of voters from his years in office. It doesn’t hurt that his older brother, Miguel, is a state senator and his younger brother, Renier, is a Miami-Dade School Board member who was on the primary ballot in August.
Diaz de la Portilla, 48, said he wants the job because he was born and raised in the district.
“I’m not a guy who comes from some Ivy League school and then comes to Little Havana and pretends to represent,” he said. “I know the community. I was born and raised there. I walked those streets. I played in those parks.”
Only three other state House races are contested in Miami-Dade:
• Former community newspaper publisher Ross Hancock, a Democrat, is running against Republican Rep. Erik Fresen in District 114.
• Incumbent Rep. Michael Bileca, a Republican, faces Democratic newcomer Jeffrey Solomon, a chiropractor, in District 115.
• Democrat Ian Whitney and Republican Holly Raschein are battling to represent House District 120, an open seat that stretches from south Miami-Dade to Key West. Raschein was formerly the top aide to Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders, the lawmaker who last held the seat. Whitney is president of the Key West Innkeepers Association.
Diaz de la Portilla and Rodriguez are vying for the seat currently held by state Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat.
The recently redrawn district still includes portions of Little Havana, a longtime Republican stronghold. But it now includes Coconut Grove and parts of Coral Gables, neighborhoods where a Democratic candidate could have the edge.
Dario Moreno, a political consultant who has conducted polling for Diaz de la Portilla, predicts the outcome of the race will likely be tied to the presidential election.
“Mitt Romney’s resurgence could play a big role in [state House] races,” Moreno said, noting that the renewed enthusiasm among Republicans would likely drive more conservatives to the polls.
But Democrats aren’t ready to concede the seat — especially if Rodriguez is able to galvanize young professionals who are both Cuban-American and liberal.
“There is a layer of the Cuban-American community that is more progressive on social issues,” said Florida International University Professor Guillermo Grenier. “They are looking for a voice that can show the pluralism in the Cuban-American community.”
Both Diaz de la Portilla and Rodriguez won in contested primaries. Diaz de la Portilla bested former state Rep. Gus Barreiro, while Rodriguez edged out real estate agent Alex Dominguez.
Diaz de la Portilla has a long history of public service that includes being named Senate majority leader. He is also known for running some of the region’s most high-profile campaigns, including the bid that propelled Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez into office last year.
But the Republican candidate also carries baggage, including a messy divorce and allegations he tried to secure contracts for donors who contributed to his political committees. He has allies and enemies in Tallahassee; some members of the Miami-Dade Delegation fear he could derail state Rep. Jose Oliva’s bid to become House speaker in 2018.
Diaz de la Portilla is running on his experience, political connections and track record. He points to the budget allocations he’s won for Miami-Dade over the years: $28 million to clean up the Miami River, $7 million for local senior centers, $4 million for La Liga Contra el Cancer, the League Against Cancer.
“This district needs someone who has already been there,” he said, “somebody who has actually made an impact along the way.”
Rodriguez contends a fresh perspective is more valuable. “My opponent practically invented the business model of pandering to voters in Miami and then selling us out in Tallahassee,” he said.
Rodriguez, who is unmarried, was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Miami-Dade. He graduated from Palmetto High School, Brown University and Harvard Law School, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal.
He has owned his house in the Coral Way neighborhood for the past three years, property records show. Coincidentally, he lives just three blocks from the home Diaz de la Portilla purchased from his parents in 2000.
As a former attorney for Florida Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that provides legal help to the poor, Rodriguez says he is sensitive to issues affecting low-income communities. He has made promoting economic growth part of his platform, along with better funding education and creating fair standards for evaluating teachers.
Diaz de la Portilla also identified education as among his top policy priorities, but said he believes funding is adequate
Throughout the election season, Diaz de la Portilla’s inner political strategist has become apparent. His campaign has been aggressively targeting voters via telephone, a strategy he perfected while running Gimenez’s mayoral bid last year.
Rodriguez has been knocking on doors and collecting small contributions from individuals and local business owners.
No matter how the vote goes, it isn’t likely to be the last word on either candidate. Diaz de la Portilla has considered running for U.S. Congress in the past.
At least one political veteran wouldn’t be surprised if the state Democrats continue grooming Rodriguez.
“He has the potential to be a good leader one day,” said Diaz de la Portilla. “But what we need now is a Republican who knows the district.”