Mary Barzee Flores was poised to get a lifetime appointment, a highly influential seat on the federal bench in Miami, only to see it blocked by a Republican senator who had recommended her for the job in the first place.
Critics from across the aisle accused Florida Sen. Marco Rubio of raw political partisanship for obstructing President Barack Obama’s nomination of the well-regarded attorney, former circuit judge and federal assistant public defender.
But the snub served to spur Barzee Flores’ political interest. The Miami native is now looking to unseat a Rubio ally, challenging U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Miami Republican and scion of a political dynasty, for his congressional seat.
“I like the idea of fighting for folks who don’t get a fair shake,” the Democrat said recently over arepas in a Venezuelan restaurant after knocking on doors in the district. Around her neck, a gold necklace reads “la jueza” — the judge.
“I’m not the type who shies away from a fight,” she said.
In 2016 Rubio blocked Barzee Flores’ nomination to a vacancy on South Florida’s federal bench. Though he and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson had initially recommended Barzee Flores for the judgeship, Rubio later accused her of not detailing earlier support for the abortion-rights group Emily’s List and the ACLU, and pointed to her involvement in a 2001 case involving a claim of “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Though she was not lead defense attorney in the case involving a Miami mother imprisoned for life for her part in a plot to kill a government witness, Barzee Flores’ client successfully claimed after her conviction that she’d had ineffective counsel.
Many in South Florida’s legal community accused Rubio of “extreme political partisanship.” Miami lawyer Tom Spencer, a Republican who had supported Rubio’s Senate bid, told the Herald at the time that Barzee Flores was an “excellent judge” and her snub “an absolute outrage and slap in the face of the people of Florida.”
Barzee Flores, 56, said she had disclosed it all, including contributions to the groups that pre-dated her time on the bench.
“It didn’t just happen to me, certainly, it happened to Judge [Merrick] Garland. It happened to many Obama nominees,” she told the Miami Herald of Rubio’s block when she announced her plans to run for office. “It was a symptom of what is wrong in Washington, and it’s evidence of petty partisan politics that I think most voters don’t have the stomach for.”
After Donald Trump was elected president, Barzee Flores knew she wanted to return to public service, but knew she would not be renominated to the federal bench.
“I thought, like so many of us did, ‘Well now what?,” Barzee Flores said. “What am I going to do, because I’ve got to do something.”
When Emily’s List approached her about becoming a candidate, Barzee Flores said it didn’t take her long to make up her mind.
“Thousands and thousands of people have stepped up to run for office for the very first time in their lives,” she said, pointing to the record number of women candidates who declared their intent to run after Trump’s election. “I’m part of that wave.”
Soon after she filed to run, Barzee Flores called for Trump’s impeachment, arguing in a Miami Herald column that the president had already “violated the sanctity of the public’s trust to an extent great enough to merit removal from office.”
That came as Barzee Flores found herself in a crowded field of Democrats, running for the open seat being vacated by the retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Former University of Miami president Donna Shalala joined the pack in March and quickly became the front-runner.
Days before the deadline to run closed in May, Barzee Flores switched races to take on Diaz-Balart in congressional district 25. She escaped a primary, but now faces a well-established incumbent who served in the Florida House and Senate for 14 years before being elected to Congress in 2002.
The switch came as Democrats sought to field competitive candidates in all three Miami congressional districts. Though Barzee Flores likely has the hardest route given the makeup of the district, her bid gives Diaz-Balart his first serious challenge since 2008. Diaz-Balart is the last member of the dynasty that dates to pre-Castro Cuba still holding elected office. His late father, Rafael Díaz-Balart, rose to be the majority leader in Cuba’s House of Representatives before Castro. His brother, Lincoln Diaz-Balart retired from the U.S. House in 2011 after 18 years in office.
“She decided to take the hard route, and I was like, ‘She’s the real thing,” said Carmen Pelaez, 47, a Cuban-American filmmaker who joined Barzee Flores on a recent Saturday to knock on doors. “She’s up against the family, the dynasty.”
Says Barzee Flores: “It looked like this guy with his atrocious voting record was going to just sail back into Congress for another term. I couldn’t bear to see that happen.”
The uphill race in a predominantly Hispanic district does not faze supporters of Barzee Flores, who is not Hispanic, but whose husband, Hector Flores, is of Mexican descent. Supporters point to Eileen Higgins’ recent victory for a Miami-Dade County Commission seat over a Cuban-born opponent to argue that non-Hispanic candidates with a message can be contenders — and victors — in Hispanic districts.
On the campaign trail, Barzee Flores chats amiably in Spanish, but switches to English as she asks voters to support her. “The person who is supposed to be representing you right now is Mario Diaz-Balart,” she tells one man in Virginia Gardens on a recent Saturday. “But it’s time for new blood.”
Diaz-Balart’s fundraising has outpaced Barzee Flores’, though the first-time federal candidate raised close to $500,000 in her first fundraising quarter. Her top contributors, aside from Emily’s List, are a who’s-who of Miami law firms, including Greenberg Traurig and the Miami firm where Barzee Flores is a shareholder in the litigation department, focusing on white-collar criminal defense and internal investigations.
Diaz-Balart has gone after Barzee Flores by attacking her husband’s legal practice. He argued that Barzee Flores’ household income comes, in part, from her husband’s work defending international arms and narcotics conspiracies, including clients that have used firearms illegally. Barzee Flores responded that Diaz-Balart was attacking her family because he doesn’t want to talk about his own record.
The congressional district, which includes most of northwestern Miami-Dade and extends across the Everglades to include portions of Collier and Hendry counties, is the most conservative among three Miami districts that Democrats are hoping to flip as they try to take control of the House.
Diaz-Balart, who initially helped draw the district lines as a member of the Florida House, won reelection in 2016 by nearly 25 percentage points, though with nominal opposition. Trump won the district by less than two percentage points, giving Democrats hope that a viable challenger could win if there is a big enough Democratic surge. And Diaz-Balart was the only member of Congress from Miami-Dade County who voted for Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Barzee Flores has come out swinging, bashing Diaz-Balart for his support from the National Rifle Association. An early ad hammers Diaz-Balart for taking campaign contributions from the gun-rights group even after 17 people were killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It features Fred Guttenberg, one of the most outspoken anti-gun Parkland parents, who calls Barzee Flores a “judge who has dealt with the reality of gun violence.”
She supports universal background checks and the reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban and her support for gun control has drawn volunteers to her campaign — including members of Moms Demand Action, the gun-control advocacy group that got started after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“After Parkland, I just said, ‘Enough,’ “ said Elizabeth Costa, 41, a Doral realtor who said she’s participating in politics for the first time. Joined by her daughter and a friend, Amaia Garmendenia, 53, they’ve volunteered with Barzee Flores’ campaign, talking to their neighbors about supporting her candidacy.
“She’s a mom, she has kids our age and she jumped right in after Parkland,” said Costa. “Like us, it’s personal for her.”
Barzee Flores does not live in the congressional district, but has noted that Diaz-Balart does not either. Members of Congress do not need to live in the districts they represent.
Democrats have sought to focus on healthcare and Barzee Flores has embraced the progressive call for “universal, affordable health care for every single person in this country.” Republicans say it’s not affordable.
But Barzee Flores says keeping healthcare coverage is a major issue for working class voters in the cities and neighborhoods that make up the district. That includes Hialeah, which has among the highest rates of enrollment in the 2010 Affordable Care Act that House Republicans, including Diaz-Balart, have repeatedly voted to repeal.
“I know, from personal experience, what it’s like for a family to fear that they’re one health crisis away from personal bankruptcy,” she said, noting her father, Austin, a World War II veteran, had trouble keeping a job because of health issues. At one point, he lost the bait-and-tackle shop he ran, and her family, she said, “went from solidly middle class to poor almost overnight. He got sicker, we got poorer.”
Her father died when she was 14 and left behind no life insurance or savings. Barzee Flores said her mother, Margaret, an Air Force officer in the Korean War and a registered nurse, didn’t work as she raised her children but renewed her nursing license and began to look for work. And at 15, Barzee Flores, the eldest of three, went to work. She worked through high school, college and law school and in interviews ticks off the jobs: dishwasher, hotel maid, line cook, waitress, bartender and freelance musician. “For 10 years, before I was ever a lawyer, I worked those low wage, some would say poverty wage jobs,” she said. “I understand what people are going through and I think we need more folks in D.C. who understand what working families struggle with.”
Born at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Barzee Flores attended Miami-Dade schools and graduated from Coral Gables High School. The family lived blocks from the Flagler Dog Track, close enough that they could hear the announcers introduce the greyhounds, her brother Bill Barzee said.
“Mary took over the responsibilities of the household for a while,” said Barzee, who practices law with his sister’s husband. “It’s who she is. She sees what needs to be done and tackles it. Kids her age were going out, having fun, but she knew the family needed her.”
It was at her first job at a Pizza Hut on LeJeune Road where Barzee Flores said she confronted sexual harassment, groped in the walk-in freezer by a manager. She hinted at the incident in her first campaign video, telling the Miami Herald that “women have had it and I think men and women are ready to have women speak up. I think that I am not alone. What happened to me at various times in my life is unfortunately unremarkable.”
As Christine Blasey Ford testified about allegations of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Barzee Flores tweeted a picture of herself saying, “I stand in solidarity and in awe of the courage of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. #BelieveSurvivors #KavanaughHearings.”
She hasn’t spared her own party, becoming one of the first Democrats to call for the resignation of Michigan Rep. John Conyers, a civil-rights icon and the longest-serving member of Congress, after multiple women accused the congressman of sexual harassment.
Barzee Flores put herself through the University of Miami, where she played the flute and majored in music, with dreams of becoming a classical conductor. She went on to earn a law degree as well, after a mentor suggested a business or law degree would give her more clout in the male-dominated orchestra world.
She discovered a love for the law, working briefly as a criminal defense lawyer before joining the federal public defender’s office where she worked for 12 years. She met her husband there — “love at first sight,” Hector Flores said. They have two children, Riley, a college student, and Adrian, who attends high school.
The race against Diaz-Balart is the first competitive one Barzee Flores has faced. She ran for Miami-Dade circuit judge in 2002, but her opponent dropped out months before the election to run for the House. Barzee Flores was reelected in 2008 without opposition and left the bench in 2011 for private practice with the Miami law firm of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff and Sitterson.
Miami lawyer Edward Blumberg, a former president of the Florida Bar Association who tries cases across the state, said Barzee Flores was one of the best judges he’d seen. He tried a complex medical malpractice case in front of Barzee Flores several years ago and said he was struck by her attention to detail.
“It was an area of law she hadn’t dealt with before, but she picked it up fast,” Blumberg said. “To really be an effective judge you have to be willing to work hard, not just 9 to 5, but take the work home, and she did.”