Ricardo Nuñez-Portuondo certainly had the props to mount a run for Rep. Claude Pepper’s District 18 seat.
He had already distinguished himself with two presidents in the Republican Party.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford named him National Director of the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which made him the first Cuban-American to receive a presidential appointment.
And President Ronald Reagan, competing for a second term against challenger Walter Mondale, wanted to distract the popular Pepper, then in his 11th term as a state Democratic representative, from campaigning in Florida for Mondale. So Reagan tapped Nuñez-Portuondo for the seat. The two filmed a 30-second TV spot at the White House to air on Spanish-language Channel 23 a week before the 1984 election.
Few expected Nuñez-Portuondo to garner more than 17 percent of the vote, despite his resume which also included two appointments in the early 1980s to the Florida Election Commission by Democratic Gov. Bob Graham.
“He wound up getting 40 percent,” son Ricardo Nuñez-Portuondo said after his 80-year-old father died Tuesday in Coral Gables. Pepper won but the two men remained on good terms.
“I remember a friendly interaction they had once,” his son said. “My father said, ‘Claude. I’ll challenge you to a wrestling match.’ Claude was his senior, you know. [Pepper] said, ‘Ricardo, I’d rather challenge you to a foot race.’ My father was a big guy and even though Claude was 20 years older, he had the edge in a foot race,” Ricardo said, chuckling.
A part of Nuñez-Portuondo’s legacy was his ability to bridge the parties, Graham said.
“He was an example of the way politics used to be. People could be in politically different parties but that did not mean they had to be personal antagonists, nor did it mean they couldn’t collaborate on issues that benefited the public. In our case, that was particularly in areas of assuring full access and fair treatment of all voters in Florida,” Graham said.
Nuñez-Portuondo was the grandson of Gen. Emilio Nuñez, one-time Cuban vice president, and the son of Emilio Nuñez-Portuondo, former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations and two-term president of the UN security council.
He was born in the Bronx when his parents were in New York on business with the United Nations. He received his high school education in the United States, but was otherwise raised in Havana. He graduated from the University of Havana School of Law and was an attache in the Cuban Embassy in Madrid.
In 1959, he resigned after differing with Fidel Castro’s regime. He arrived in Miami in 1960 and soon met Dolores Maldonado, the woman who would become his wife of 51 years. The couple married at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables and would raise three children
Nuñez-Portuondo worked in real estate investing and development.
“Family and friends were a driving force,” son Ricardo said. “He always said, ‘Along the path of life you’ll have to make decisions. As long as you’re honest and do the right thing, that will always be the right decision.’”
As an exile, the embrace of the United States resonated with Nuñez-Portuondo.
“For me, the two things were his passion for his family and his passion for his community,” son Emilio said. “He was very strong in his community and his political aspirations.”
Son Eduardo champions his father’s “positive outlook.”
“In every situation we had growing up, we always had friends and family around us. He was always inclusive.”
Nuñez-Portuondo served as a trustee of Florida International University, director of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, and supported the Red Cross of Miami, Catholic Charities and Mercy Hospital.
“He was an interesting man,” said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre. “He had his opinions … and was a very intelligent and successful Cuban exile. He left a positive mark in Miami.”
In addition to his three children - Ricardo, Emilio and Eduardo - Nuñez-Portuondo also is survived by seven grandchildren. Services will be at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church, 900 SW 26th Rd., Miami.