State Rep. Erik Fresen is one of Miami-Dade’s better known state lawmakers — and as education budget chairman, among the most powerful.
Yet, he is the only Republican member of Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation facing a serious challenge in the Nov. 4 election.
The Democratic candidate, U.S. Army veteran and healthcare administrator Daisy Baez, has raised more than $187,000 for her campaign and has commercials airing on Miami TV stations. Ross Hancock, who nearly beat Fresen in 2012, is running again as an independent candidate.
Democrats say Baez could defeat the incumbent for House District 114.
They point out that the district includes left-leaning communities like Pinecrest and Cutler Bay — and that Fresen won by a narrow margin in 2012.
“It is definitely a swing seat,” said state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. “And in the southern part of the district, Daisy fares very well.”
But Bullard concedes it won’t be easy.
Fresen has been involved in Florida politics since 2000, when he began as a legislative aide to then-state Rep. Renier Diaz de la Portilla. He made his first bid for the Florida House eight years later, winning the seat that previously belonged to term-limited House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Since becoming a lawmaker, Fresen has passed laws changing the way Florida treats trafficking victims, and worked to increase funding for autism centers. He also sponsored a failed proposal to allow destination casinos in Florida.
But by and large, his focus has been on education. In 2011, he co-sponsored a proposal that put an end to teacher tenure and ushered in performance pay. He later spearheaded efforts to base a portion of university funding on student outcomes, and carried a bill that expanded the school voucher program.
Fresen says he is particularly proud of the merit pay law.
“Part of the reason there was such high turnover was that you had excited teachers coming into the profession who were frustrated because they wouldn't receive a step [raise],” he said. “Now, [school districts] get to reward the right person in real time.”
His efforts have won praise from the Foundation for Florida’s Future, the influential think tank founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, and education reform groups like StudentsFirst. But they have put him at odds with the statewide teachers union and the PTA.
The union and PTA have also been critical of Fresen’s support for privately managed charter schools. Fresen once drafted language in an education bill prohibiting municipalities from imposing stricter zoning or building regulations on charter schools. His brother-in-law, Fernando Zulueta, is the CEO of Academica, the state’s largest school management company.
Fresen does not hide the fact that he has championed charter schools. But he says he has been equally supportive of traditional public schools. He noted that he helped the Miami-Dade school system fill a $60 million budget hole earlier this year.
Not surprisingly, Baez has made school choice a central part of her campaign. She opposes public money being used for privately managed schools, she said.
“I believe in a free-market economy,” Baez said. “If you have an idea for a business, you should go out and get investors, have a business plan and make money — but not with public funds.”
Baez’s platform also includes expanding access to healthcare. She favors Medicaid expansion, something the Republican-led Legislature has snubbed for the past two years.
Baez said her interest in the subject stems from her experience as a social worker and healthcare administrator. She is also executive director and founder of the Dominican Health Care Association of Florida, a trade group of physicians with ties to the Caribbean nation.
Baez is relatively new to politics. She started organizing for President Barack Obama in 2008, and served as president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Hispanic Caucus from 2011 to 2014.
She had been eyeing a run in her home district for some time, she said.
“We looked at the demographics of the district and what happened in the last election, and we thought this was the right time,” she said.
Baez is likely to get a boost from voters in the southern part of the district, who have opposed recent efforts by Academica to open new charter schools in South Dade.
More than 100 people attended a forum with all three candidates in July held by the Concerned Citizens of Cutler Bay, the organization’s president Steve Zarzecki said. The event marked the first time the group ran out of coffee and doughnuts.
“We don’t do polls here, so it is really anybody’s guess, but I think that the community is going to be interested,” he said.
Fresen is not about to go quietly into the night.
The three-term state lawmaker has a strong base of support in West Miami and Coral Gables, two important communities in his district. He also has a campaign war chest that already exceeds $376,000.
A new TV commercial includes an endorsement from early childhood education advocate and former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr.
“I don't do political commercials for anybody,” Lawrence says in the ad. “I’ve never done it in all the years of my life. I'm doing it because I so believe in Erik Fresen.”
Fresen may also benefit from Hancock running as a third candidate in the race.
Hancock, a former community newspaper publisher, is a self-funded candidate who has spent about $20,000 on his campaign. Observers say he is poised to take votes from Baez and tip the scale in favor of the incumbent.
Hancock’s platform includes supporting public schools and addressing water issues, such as saltwater intrusion, fracking and sea-level rise.
“It’s really crucial at this point that Florida start to deal with climate change in an adult way,” he said. “Nobody is talking about it seriously. It is a serious issue for our kids.”
Still, Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said GOP party leaders “feel good” about Fresen’s chances of being reelected.
“We’re not going to take our foot off the gas, though,” Hepworth said. “We are going to push through.”
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.