Note: This profile was published ahead of the May 22 primary in the special election called to fill the District 5 seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission, which was vacated by Bruno Barreiro so that he could run for Congress. Eileen Higgins and Zoraida Barreiro finished first and second in the primary, respectively, and face each other in a June 19 run-off election.
It was cerdo asado day at the Unidad senior center on Miami Beach, and Zoraida Barreiro arrived with her husband holding a bucket of peach roses.
"For Mother's Day," Barreiro explained on the way to her campaign stop to succeed the man holding the bucket, former Miami-Dade commissioner Bruno Barreiro.
In her campaign to fill the seat her husband vacated to run for Congress, Barreiro says she's the candidate who knows the district's residents the best, thanks to decades of events like this. And on this early afternoon in an oceanfront community room off 72nd Street, Barreiro got an enviable welcome.
"Barreiro is No. 1," Fabiola Hernandez said, holding the rose with an "Elect Zoraida A. Barreiro" card hanging from the stem by a rubber band. A huddle of lunch goers formed around the candidate, with smiles, kisses and requests to pose for cellphone photos.
The mingling captured Barreiro's chosen path to her husband's District 5 seat — a campaign heavy on personal connections, name recognition and a flood of mailers while the candidate herself avoids stand-out moments and the spotlight.
Hours later, América TeVé anchor Félix Guillermo would point to an empty chair reserved for Barreiro in a televised debate attended by her three rivals. When she sat down with the Miami Herald Editorial Board last month, Barreiro said she was grateful that the meeting wasn't being streamed on the Internet. "Thank you for not having the cameras," she said with a laugh. "I am not a public speaker."
The Republican running for a nonpartisan county seat pointed to her failed bid last fall for the Miami City Commission in describing the campaigning she likes: meeting people one-on-one to hear their problems. "I so enjoy the experience, the getting to know the people and the needs of the people," she said.
Barreiro came to the United States at age 12, fleeing with relatives on a fishing boat named the Coral Reef that an uncle rented during the 1980 Mariel boat lift from Cuba. "He was able to get 10 of us out," she said.
The family lived a working-class life in New York, and Barreiro recalled weekend trips to local parks with lunches packed in coolers to save money. "Just driving around," she said. "That was our entertainment. ... I thank my parents for that. They were very conscious about savings and the future. Now they're retired, they own their own home, they can pay their own expenses. This country is a country of opportunity."
After moving to Miami, she met Bruno while working at a law firm he used. They were dating when he won his first office in 1992, a state House seat in Miami. Friday was their 22nd wedding anniversary, but their first with Bruno out of office. After six years in Tallahassee, he represented Miami-Dade's District 5 for 20 years, starting in 1998. He was formidable enough to face no challengers in 2016.
A new Florida law required him to resign to pursue Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's congressional seat, but he didn't have to leave the commission until the end of the year. His surprise resignation effective March 31 forced the kind of sprint election that would favor a candidate sharing the same last name as a popular incumbent.
But with former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla joining the race, the contest features two well-known political families in a slugfest for a district that straddles Little Havana, parts of downtown Miami and a stretch of Miami Beach that spreads from South Beach and heads up the coast.
Zoraida Barreiro helps run the Barreiro family's home healthcare business. She lists a $69,000 salary from Fatima Home Care on her financial disclosure form. She said her work helps inform her views on how to help older residents of District 5 like the lunchtime gathering at Unidad Miami Beach, which at one point broke out into a chant of "Zoraida, Zoraida, Zoraida."
"She's always been there," Bruno Barreiro said as his wife visited tables at Unidad. "She's on the front lines."
Older residents "are always concerned about transit. They've cut a lot of lines. ... When they cut a bus route, it's the seniors who are the ones who use public transportation," Zoraida Barreiro said after the event. "A lot of these seniors, they live off their retirement checks and it's not enough. If they don't have any assistance with housing, they have to choose between paying their rent and eating."
Running as her husband's successor has Barreiro enjoying the advantages of an incumbent in terms of name recognition and loyalty to the long-term commissioner. The county's firefighters union endorsed her immediately after learning Bruno Barreiro was leaving his seat, followed by the county's water-and-sewer union. She led the fundraising race for campaign committees as of Friday night, with more than $100,000 raised. But Zoraida Barreiro also faces the challenge of distinguishing herself from the other Barreiro as a candidate.
One of her campaign mailers pitches Zoraida Barreiro as bringing a "new and fresh perspective" to county government. She sees sexism when people accuse her of running on the coattails of her husband.
"Why should I be limited and not run just because I'm married to Bruno?" she said. "I'm my own person."
Outside of the Unidad event, with her husband listening in to an interview, Barreiro declined to share any significant votes where she disagreed with the former commissioner.
"We're not carbon copies of each other. I've given him an earful on several issues," she said.
Care to share one or two? "Maybe after the 22nd."
Education: Bachelor of Arts in business administration, Florida International University
Neighborhood: The Roads in Miami