Tired of being cast by his opponent as a lobbyist choosing clients over constituents in Tallahassee, Florida Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla flipped the script on state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez during two televised Sunday debates.
“Mr. Rodríguez here is basically a lobbyist,” Diaz de la Portilla said on WPLG’s “This Week in South Florida.” “He’s worked as a lobbyist in Tallahassee. He’s beholden to special interests, particularly insurance.”
Appearing incredulous, Rodríguez said his competitor was “completely making this up” before he realized he’d registered to lobby the state in 2011 with Florida Legal Services, a nonprofit that advocates for the poor.
“It’s fantastic he’s bringing this up. ... There were two topics. One of them had to do with health insurance for extremely disabled people. The other had to do with children’s healthcare,” Rodríguez said, adding he lobbied for one day only. “He’s a for-profit, professional lobbyist.”
Diaz de la Portilla shot back: “No, I’m a practicing attorney. You have a no-show job at a Broward personal injury law firm.”
The testy exchange — part of a contentious Sunday television double-header for the Florida Senate District 37 candidates — illustrated just how nasty the race has become as Rodríguez and the Florida Democratic Party look to unseat Diaz de la Portilla, a six-year senator running in a redrawn district that spans from Key Biscayne to Cutler Bay.
With heavy backing from the party and wealthy donors, Rodríguez’s campaign has attacked Diaz de la Portilla over his job as a government and land-use attorney representing clients before municipal governments. The veteran legislator doesn’t lobby the state, but his critics say Diaz de la Portilla — who cut a reputation as a reformer during his long years on the Miami-Dade County Commission — has lost his way.
He’s a for-profit, professional lobbyist.
State Rep. Jose Javier Rodríguez
Diaz de la Portilla and Republican leaders, meanwhile, have hit back, accusing Rodríguez of being a “feckless” legislator with a botella, or no-show job, at the law firm of Kelley Uustal. They’ve also said that it’s Rodríguez who is beholden to insurance interests, citing his considerable support from Win Florida, a “dark money” nonprofit advocacy group chaired by the former owner of the NetQuote online insurance market.
You have a no-show job at a Broward personal injury law firm.
State Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla
“It’s hypocritical of Rodríguez to claim he’s Mr. Clean when he has all this dark money, insurance dark money financing a smear campaign against me,” Diaz de la Portilla told Jim DeFede, the host of WFOR’s “Facing South Florida.”
Rodríguez noted that he has clearly been listed as a working attorney in court dockets since joining Kelley Uustal, to which Diaz de la Portilla accused him of simply attaching his name to legal briefings.
On claims that he’s beholden to insurers, Rodríguez touted his record advocating for consumers. He said his opponent’s attacks are intended to deflect from a vote Diaz de la Portilla took in favor of a property insurance bill in 2011 that was intended to curb fraudulent sinkhole claims but has been cited by PolitiFact Florida as one of the reasons Florida’s property insurance bills have gone up.
“All of the attacks that have been lobbed at me are smokescreens,” he said. “They’re trying to fool voters.”
Rodríguez mentioned repeatedly Sunday that Diaz de la Portilla has registered in the past to lobby for red-light camera operator American Traffic Solutions, for-profit charter schools and developers. He also mentions Florida Power & Light, although Diaz de la Portilla, while having been accused of lobbying for the utility, has never registered to represent the company.
Diaz de la Portilla’s municipal clients do sometimes cross paths with his life in Tallahassee. This year, he sponsored a bill that was later amended by another legislator to include language that could have helped subsidize a mega-mall project in northwest Miami-Dade by Triple Five — a client.
But at the time, Diaz de la Portilla said the amendment could be applied statewide, and should not have been viewed as a measure to help his client. And on “This Week in South Florida,” he said his clients include groups like the Chabad Center of Kendall, and Rodríguez knows he’s not carrying water for clients in Tallahassee.
“Typically, these are landowners and property owners who have a petition before local government. It has nothing to do with what I do in Tallahassee or what the Legislature does,” he said. “That’s totally irrelevant and Rodríguez knows it’s irrelevant.”