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Lone Hispanic Democrat running to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen drops out of race

Democratic State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez is dropping out of the race to replace retiring Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Democratic State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez is dropping out of the race to replace retiring Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cjuste@miamiherald.com

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez announced Wednesday that he is dropping out of a hotly contested Miami congressional race in order to keep his seat in the Florida Legislature — a move that improves Democrats' chances of gaining ground in Tallahassee but leaves the party without a Hispanic candidate in a majority-Hispanic district.

Rodríguez was a contender for the Democratic nomination in Florida's 27th Congressional District, which has been represented by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen since 1989. But he was in a tough spot.

In order to campaign for the seat, Rodríguez would have had to resign his position in the Senate no later than April 20 due to the terms of a newly passed resign-to-run law. That put him at odds with party leaders and boosters, who helped Rodríguez beat a Republican incumbent two years ago in an expensive and contentious race. His resignation would have forced Democrats to defend the seat in another expensive and otherwise unnecessary campaign in the fall.

As recently as last week, Rodríguez insisted that he was preparing to resign and run for Congress, denying long-simmering rumors that he was dropping out. But on Wednesday, he issued a statement saying that he'd decided instead to continue pushing progressive policy in Tallahassee as Democrats push to gain stronger control in the Senate.

“That is why today I reaffirm to constituents here in District 37 that I will continue to serve as their State Senator and battle the status quo of Tallahassee politics,” said Rodríguez. “To do this I will formally end my candidacy for Congress. Instead our efforts will focus on helping elect progressive allies here in Miami-Dade and all over Florida that can bring that desperately needed action to Tallahassee."

With Rodríguez back in the fold, party leaders in Florida can now turn their attention to winning back seats in the state Senate, where Democrats hold 16 of 40 seats. Having recently won a several special elections, including a Miami-area Senate seat last September, the party is hopeful that it can take the majority in the state's upper chamber.

"It's absolutely within our reach," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, who as incoming minority leader runs point on the party's Senate campaigns.

Rodríguez's decision also gave his primary opponents in the congressional race room to smile. Polls showed him running second to former University of Miami president Donna Shalala, and his exit gave the rest of the field room to breathe. Only hours earlier, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell told the Miami Herald that he, too, was choosing to leave the race rather than resign his seat.

Like Rodríguez, Russell said he wanted to pursue his goals in the position he already held, and worried about who might take his job if he left.

“If I can’t keep the promises I made here, it’s not worth going forward with this,” he said.

Besides Shalala, the other Democrats in the race are Mary Barzee Flores, Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, David Richardson, and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez.

Republicans have reason to feel good about Rodríguez's exit, too. The state senator was the only Hispanic candidate in the Democratic field, and District 27 is nearly three-quarters Hispanic. More than a third of the district is Cuban. At least six Hispanic candidates are running in the Republican primary.

"In Congressional District 27, a community that's been represented for almost 30 years by a Hispanic member of Congress, a majority Hispanic district, and Democrats are proposing eliminating a Hispanic representative in Congress," Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Wednesday in Washington. "So it's very telling and I think it's unfortunate, as unfortunate as the way some Republicans here in Congress are so insensitive on issues like immigration and other issues that are of importance to the Hispanic community."

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