Heading into last month’s primary election, voters from Palmetto Bay to Miami were bombarded with political ads from the campaigns of two competing state Senate candidates touting progressive credentials like education funding and environmental regulation.
But the race for Senate District 37 wasn’t on the Aug. 30 ballot. Nor is it a competition between two Democrats.
Rather, a statewide redrawing of Florida’s Senate districts has set the table for a November clash between Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a three-term Republican incumbent with a big name and independent streak, and José Javier Rodríguez, a two-term state representative and “rising star” in the Democratic party. (A third candidate, Mercedes Christian, has no party affiliation and almost no money.)
The race is already among the most competitive and contentious in the state. And in a presidential election sure to draw out its base, the Democratic party is running hard after the seat — and Diaz de la Portilla is running hard to the center.
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“This is a battleground seat that performed for the president [in 2012]. It’s our seat,” said incoming Senate minority leader Oscar Braynon, field general for the party’s Senate campaign resources. “Polls say we have a very good chance of picking this up.”
Already, the party has released commercials for Rodríguez, who, like his opponent, is often referred to only by his initials. And Democrats come in feeling good about their chances, considering that Rodríguez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, won his way into the Legislature four years ago by stunning the incumbent’s younger brother, former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla. Braynon calls him a “rising star.”
They also have this to feel good about: In a redrawn district with 243,000 registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans 86,000 to 81,600. Oh, and some political analysts believe that Donald Trump — persona non grata in some parts of Miami-Dade County — will weigh down South Florida’s Republican candidates.
Here’s the question for Miguel: Has the district changed too much?
Dario Moreno, Florida International University political science professor
“The Senate is a much bigger platform in terms of being able to accomplish policy for my constituents and it’s a unique opportunity to run for a brand new state Senate seat,” said Rodríguez, a vocal critic in Tallahassee of for-profit colleges and Florida Power & Light. “I currently represent a district that’s very moderate in the House, and I think it positions me well to represent a wide array of constituents in the state Senate.”
But if JJR fancies himself the DLP slayer, he will likely find tougher sledding against the elder Diaz de la Portilla, and not just because of his fundraising prowess and widespread name recognition thanks in part to his two brothers. The former county commissioner and attorney has also campaigned successfully in the past as a moderate and secured a broad base of support that reaches into the Senate leadership and crosses the aisle.
Through Sen. Joe Negron’s Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Diaz de la Portilla launched a wave of mailers this summer touting support for Everglades restoration, efforts to protect the state’s water supply and the passage of a bill to take a vaunted Miami-Dade criminal mental health program statewide. He also boasts a bevy of union endorsements from left-leaning organizations like the United Teachers of Dade — which helped Rodríguez win his first two campaigns.
“He’s a senior senator now and has a lot of political clout, and we need him,” UTD president Karla Hernandez-Mats said of Diaz de la Portilla. “[Rodríguez] has been a good friend and he’s absolutely been a good vote ... but he hasn’t been able to put us over the top because he’s a minority in [Tallahassee].”
I was here during the McDuffie riots. I was here during the Mariel boat lift. I understand this community.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla
The incumbent, who identifies as a fiscal conservative, says he’s more importantly a “free thinker” unbound by partisan ties. For instance, it was Diaz de la Portilla last year who single-handedly killed bills to allow guns to be carried on school campuses and out in the open.
“A lot of times dogma and party create artificial divisions and separation between people,” he said. “This idea that because you’re a member of a particular party you have to vote the party platform dictated from Washington or the national party to me goes contrary to public interest, common sense and the whole idea of having a deliberate government that debates on the merits of things.”
With so much overlap between the messages of the two opponents — and 71,400 voters in the district with no party affiliation — the candidates are looking to undercut each other. A political committee called South Florida’s Future has bombed Diaz de la Portilla as “lobbyist of the year,” emphasizing his representation of charter school giant Academica before the city of Miami in 2012, and his past ties to Florida Power & Light, which was represented by his prior law firm, Becker & Poliakoff.
“If a legislator is voting on policy affecting public schools and that same legislator like Diaz de la Portilla lobbies for the for-profit charter school industry, that’s a problem,” Rodríguez said.
It’s important to know not just where your legislator stands ideologically, but to know how hard they’ll work and how committed they are to serving their constituents.
Rep. José Javier Rodríguez
Diaz de la Portilla retorts that Rodríguez is hypocritically relying on “dark money” and raps his challenger as an all-talk, no-action political climber looking to deflect attention on his lack of accomplishments in four years in office. He says his record shows that he’s been successful at bringing home funding for local projects and isn’t beholden to special interests, for instance voting against the charter school industry’s “parent trigger” bill in 2013.
“There’s just a false narrative being created by my feckless opponent, who hasn’t accomplished anything in four years,” he said.
But just as Rodríguez is probably running his toughest race yet, analysts and consultants believe the race will also be difficult for Diaz de la Portilla, who hasn’t faced opposition since he won his seat in 2010. Six years later, the incumbent is running in a new landscape, and in a tough political climate, said Florida International University political science professor and pollster Dario Moreno.
“Here’s the question for Miguel,” Moreno said. “Has the district changed too much?”