Last month’s primary to fill the seat vacated by former Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro may have signaled a new direction in local politics.
The three-candidate race saw a veteran state lawmaker defeated by two women who are both virtual newcomers to politics. They now will face each other in a June 19 runoff to represent District 5, a rich man-poor man district that encompasses Little Havana, parts of downtown Miami, including Brickell, and a stretch of Miami Beach that spreads north from South Beach. Early voting begins Saturday.
With Alex Diaz de la Portilla eliminated from the race, voters will choose between Eileen Higgins, a business owner who came in first, and Zoraida Barreiro, a home healthcare executive and wife of the former commissioner. Although it’s a nonpartisan seat, it pits a Democrat and a Republican.
Higgins’ strong showing at the polls was telling in this largely Hispanic district. She received 70 percent of that vote. Higgins admits some Latin voters have a difficult time pronouncing her name and she speaks just enough Spanish to get by on the radio, but she is unfazed. In fact, she is affectionately called La Gringa (“the American woman”) in some circles. “I just know that people want good governance; they’re not going to vote for just a Hispanic last name,” she told the Editorial Board.
Barreiro ran unsuccessfully last fall for the Miami City Commission, but had a strong showing. She told the Editorial Board her grassroots political experience comes from running the family business and shadowing her husband. At his side, she said she has met constituents with problems and shaken a lot of hands.
Both women soundly defeated Diaz de la Portilla, who was endorsed by this Editorial Board, which recognized that he was the more experienced candidate.
However, voters went for the fresh faces and, in Higgins’ case, the fresher ideas of a candidate who, though she hasn’t held elected office, is steeped in the issues pertinent to this community through her public engagement.
“I ride public transit,” Higgins told the Board. She knows first hand the late buses, the operational challenges. “The cities are moving ahead of the county with circulators,” she said. “They’re cheap and [use] a smart-card purchase, so there are no delays.”
It’s part of Higgins’ practical philosophy to get things done: “Why wait for multibillion-dollar solutions?”
She also knows that there is a never-funded Housing Trust. Now that it has a board, she says, it can get to work raising funds that will draw down private money for affordable housing.
Higgins has spent quality time in several areas of service, teaching entrepreneurship to school children, advocating through PACT for gun-violence intervention as part of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance.
Barreiro says she’s the candidate who knows the district’s residents best, thanks to watching her husband become a popular and responsive commissioner by addressing the needs of the people, mainly elderly Hispanics.
“I have lived in the district for 32 years and I have been exposed to all its issues, and there is much inequality,” Barreiro said. She rejects the idea that she should not run because her husband is vacating the same seat. “Why should I be limited?” she said.
Barreiro wants to focus on the leg of the SMART Plan that will link downtown Miami to Miami Beach and she wants to keep Metromover a free ride. But her campaign relies too heavily on personal connections, name recognition and a flood of mailers. The district needs a representative with a deeper understanding of the challenges and solutions than Barreiro brings.
Higgins, on the other hand, is knocking on doors, pushing her idea that the commission needs a practical thinker with practical solutions who will protect taxpayers’ money.
Higgins’ campaign blundered this week when a letter of endorsement from Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez was mistakenly edited to say his father had been a member of Cuba’s feared G-2, instead of arrested and thrown in jail by G-2. Careless, but not a dealbreaker.
Higgins is full of energy and new ideas and a sense of duty to serve the public in the progressive style of former Commissioner Katy Sorenson. She has a smart, crisp and engaging appeal we have not seen in a long time. She can tell you which bus routes are underserved; she has realistic solutions to affordable housing and wants to make the county’s sea-level-rise resiliency effort “move faster.”
As the much-stronger candidate, the Herald recommends EILEEN HIGGINS for Miami-Dade Commission District 5.