State Rep. David Richardson, the Miami Beach Democrat and retired forensic auditor who has used his expertise to uncover financial abuse in the state prison system, will run for Congress in the Miami-based seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who announced her retirement last month.
“I’m ready for it,” Richardson said in an exclusive interview with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. “The most important thing is that anyone working in Washington has got to work in a bipartisan way and, for the last five years, I’ve demonstrated I’ve been able to get things done in the minority.”
Richardson, 60, entered a race that is already crowded with both Democrats and Republicans. He was first elected in 2012 and became the first openly gay man to hold office in the Florida Legislature. He starts with a strong base as his Democratic state House district is enclosed entirely within Congressional District 27, is 60 percent Hispanic and leans Democratic.
“Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, because of her tenure, has been amazing and exceptional with constituent services,” he said. “I really believe she could have won in 2018.”
National Democrats consider the seat, which favored Clinton over Trump by 20 percentage points, a favorable pickup opportunity. Already announced are state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, Miami Beach commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person.
Republican candidates who have announced are former school board member and Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and Maria Peiro, who unsuccessfully challenged Ros-Lehtinen in last year’s primary.
Richardson said he has been considering a run for Congress for some time but expected Ros-Lehtinen to retire in 2020. Her unexpected announcement that she will retire in 2018 after 35 years in office, accelerated his timeline.
Miami businessman Scott Fuhrman, the first Democrat to announce a challenge to Ros-Lehtinen before her resignation, announced Tuesday that he’s suspending his campaign, citing a lack of support from donors.
“Running these campaigns costs an exorbitant amount of money — it’s really insane,” Fuhrman told the Miami Herald. “I spent over a million dollars of my own money in 2016 and this year. I couldn’t really get the support among the Democratic donor community without having to put in a huge amount of my own money in the race.”
Fuhrman said he intends to support Richardson in his bid for Congress.
“I do think he’s the best candidate among a crowded field,” Fuhrman said. “There are a lot of political opportunists seeking the path of least resistance. Where were they in 2016? I don’t want to throw stones at anyone in particular, but I do think there’s some who wouldn’t take that tough vote in Congress.”
Richardson, who spent Tuesday in Washington meeting with pollsters and party strategists, said he has hired Eric Johnson, who managed Fuhrman’s campaign, to be his campaign consultant.
“I’ve been looking at the seat for a couple of years but had decided I wasn’t going to run against her,” he said. “It’s not going to be a cakewalk. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the race and weighing my options. I think this is the best way to serve folks in the state of Florida right now.”
Read more: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to retire from Congress
Richardson ran for office after he retired as a forensic auditor. Drawing on a 30-year career unraveling corporate corruption and financial malfeasance, he turned his expertise into examining the financial records, policies and allegations of abuse in the state’s troubled corrections system.
He investigated brutal “test of heart” hazing rituals used by prison gangs to extort money from young newcomers in return for protection and forced policy changes. He has learned how gangs avoid corrections officers, create lookouts and decoys and rely on poorly designed prison spaces to exploit blind spots and prey on their victims.
He uncovered what he considers “ground zero for officer-on-inmate violence” at Sumter Correctional Institution. He dug out details about how new arrivals were routinely “punched, or choked, or hit or slapped by an officer” as they arrived on the prison bus, validating reports that elements of the state’s prison culture were failing to police their own.
In the last year, he spent more than 700 hours interviewing 300 inmates at dozens of facilities across the state, Richardson discovered that the bifurcated oversight worked to the advantage of the private prison companies and to the disadvantage of taxpayers.
He revealed evidence of officer-on-inmate violence at youthful offender facilities, caught officers withholding food from inmates, and persuaded the Department of Corrections to close down Lancaster Correctional Institution, a youthful offender prison. He uncovered “horrific” conditions at Columbia Correctional, where toilets wouldn’t flush, showers didn’t work, a heating system didn’t heat and deafening sounds came from an exhaust fan.
And he has forced two investigations in Gadsden Correctional, where he discovered women lived for months without hot water or heat, faced flooded bathrooms daily and endured water rations when the septic tanks were jammed with food waste.
“I can’t wait to get started looking at the federal prisons,” Richardson said.
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.