In a year with only a handful of competitive statehouse races, a battle in Miami-Dade County is quickly becoming the one to watch.
Democrats are fighting to ensure state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez keeps his seat in the Florida House. A Harvard-educated attorney, Rodríguez is a skilled debater who is considered a rising star in political circles.
Yet, the Republican Party sees House District 112 as one it can flip. Its nominee, attorney Daniel Diaz Leyva, is a rising star in his own right who has raised nearly $325,000 for his campaign and won the support of key GOP leaders including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Other factors will come into play, including how the electorate feels about the Obama administration and how many Democrats come out to support gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, pollster Fernand Amandi said.
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“This will be a bellwether race,” Amandi said.
House District 112 is one of Miami-Dade’s few true swing districts. It includes right-leaning pockets of Little Havana and the Roads, left-leaning Coconut Grove and Brickell, and mixed communities like Coral Gables and Key Biscayne.
Rodríguez, 36, was a political unknown when he won the seat in 2012. He defeated veteran Republican lawmaker Alex Diaz de la Portilla — an accomplishment that stunned observers.
After arriving in Tallahassee, Rodríguez became known for his thoughtful approach to policymaking. He supported Medicaid expansion and opposed tax breaks for professional sports franchises. He also fought a Florida Power and Light plan to erect power lines along U.S.1.
“The fact that FPL has a lock down on energy policy is something we need to address,” he said.
Rodríguez has the support of three former Miami mayors: Maurice Ferré (whose granddaughter he married in May), Xavier Suárez and Manny Diaz. The current mayor, Republican Tomás Regalado, is also championing Rodríguez’s bid for re-election.
“He delivered for Marine Stadium,” Regalado said, referring to the $1million in state funding Rodríguez helped secure for the dilapidated landmark. “And he goes to all of the community associations and talks to the people.”
Still, Rodríguez’s re-election is far from guaranteed.
Voter turnout is not expected to be as strong among Democrats as it was two years ago when President Barack Obama was on the ballot. What’s more, unlike in 2012, Republican state lawmakers are united in their support of the Republican candidate.
Diaz Leyva, 35, is a real estate attorney who has sat on the board of CHARLEE Homes for Children in Miami-Dade and Banyan Health Systems. He has never sought elected office, but has worked for a lobbying firm and served as campaign chairman for Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz.
Diaz Leyva’s platform includes lowering taxes, creating a more favorable environment for businesses, and providing more vocational and technical training for Florida students.
“We need more training so our students can get well-paying jobs without being saddled with debt,” he said. “That’s what will encourage upward mobility.”
Diaz Leyva said he would also work to support Miami-Dade’s education and healthcare institutions, and to reduce the cost of property insurance for homeowners.
Miami-Dade Republican Chairman Nelson Diaz called Diaz Leyva one of the hardest-working candidates he had ever met.
“It’s not only that we believe we can take the seat,” Nelson Diaz said. “We believe we can keep it [in 2016].”
The two candidates have spent the past year building their campaign war chests, each with the support of their respective political party.
Rodríguez has raised more than $246,000. His top donors include the United Teachers of Dade and SEIU, as well as several other unions and Miami-Dade law firms.
So far, he has spent about $90,000.
Diaz Leyva’s haul includes contributions from healthcare companies, local businesses and conservative political committees.
Both candidates have begun airing television commercials. Rodríguez’s first ad paints Diaz Leyva as a lobbyist and political insider who would serve special interests. Diaz Leyva’s ad takes a far more positive tone, featuring his wife and two young children.
The two have also been courting votes the old-fashioned way.
Rodríguez spent a recent Wednesday afternoon shuffling between two senior centers. He received a warm welcome from the residents at Archbishop Carroll Manor.
“He’s a smart guy with plenty of common sense,” José M. Santé said, adding that Rodríguez is well versed in Cuban exile politics.
Diaz Leyva found support at the Stirrup Plaza Community Center, where some of the women recognized him from his previous visits. They gushed over photos of his family, and promised to vote for him in November.
“He’s got four votes here,” said Rosa Acosta, pointing to herself and three of her friends. “The truth is, he’s very nice and he cares about us. We know he will listen to us.”
Still, the district remains full of voters like Ruth Pope, a Coconut Grove resident who says she is still considering her options.
Pope, 69, typically votes for Democrats. But she said she would support a Republican candidate committed to revitalizing Grand Avenue.
“It’s like buying a new car,” Pope said. “I need to see who is going to give me the best deal.”
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.