Miami-Dade County

How one congressional race could oust five Miami politicians if Florida bill passes

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, shares a light moment during a May 1, 2017, press conference. Her retirement has set off a scramble by hopeful Democratic officeholders to replace her in the left-leaning congressional district, and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature may change state law to require anyone running for federal office to give up their state or local seats.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, shares a light moment during a May 1, 2017, press conference. Her retirement has set off a scramble by hopeful Democratic officeholders to replace her in the left-leaning congressional district, and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature may change state law to require anyone running for federal office to give up their state or local seats. Miami Herald File Photo

Democrat Kristen Rosen Gonzalez didn’t seem to have much to lose last year when the first-term Miami Beach commissioner announced a run to fill the congressional seat in a left-leaning district currently held by retiring Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

That could change very soon, under a bill moving through the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature that would force Rosen Gonzalez and four other elected officials in the race to give up their current posts to run for Congress. Rosen Gonzalez is promising to sue if Florida tries to make her choose between seeking higher office and retaining her local one.

“I think it is unconstitutional for the state of Florida to exact a price on a federal office,” she said. “The Republican super-majority is out of line.”

The bill, which passed another committee Thursday on its way to a floor vote, would expand Florida’s existing “resign-to-run” rule to cover both state and federal offices. Currently, Florida officeholders are required to give up their existing seats only if they seek state or local office. Florida used to have the same rules for federal posts. That law changed in 2007 when then-Gov. (and then-Republican) Charlie Crist was hoping for a vice-presidential nomination the following year.

Reverting back to the old rules could mean some tough decisions in the crowded field of Democrats hoping to snag their party’s nomination for a congressional contest that has Republicans discouraged about their prospects in November.

Along with Rosen Gonzalez, the Democratic field for Ros-Lehtinen’s 27th District seat includes Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, state Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach, and state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami. Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro is the lone Republican elected official running for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat.

All five would need to submit their resignations this summer if SB 186 passes and they decide to remain in the Aug. 28 congressional primary. Their resignations wouldn’t take effect until January, when whoever wins the congressional seat would take office.

Candidates not holding office — including Angie Chirino, Matt Haggman, Mary Barzee Flores, Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera and others — wouldn’t be affected by the law, beyond the possibility of facing a narrower field if any of their rivals withdraw.

Rodriguez narrowly won his Senate seat in 2016, unseating Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla to win a four-year term. The resign-to-run change would give Republicans a decent chance at winning back the seat, providing an upside to Democrats’ perceived good fortune in Ros-Lehtinen’s surprise retirement in a district Hillary Clinton won by 16 points. Rodriguez has already voted for the bill in committee.

Barreiro, who did not respond to requests for comment, must leave the County Commission in 2020 under term-limit rules, so would give up only two years on a board he first joined in 1998. The stakes are much higher for newcomers Rosen Gonzalez and Russell, who are in their first terms of office on city boards and would be surrendering their freshly won seats to stick with a crowded congressional race.

So far, only Rosen Gonzalez has resisted the idea of giving up her current office in the face of the bill. Russell criticized the proposal for being “specifically” written for the 27th District race. “That’s not the way we should write laws,” he said.

But Russell — whose fundraising from Miami lobbyists and developers would surely be handicapped if he had to give up his city seat — said he’s “all in” for the congressional race.

“If forced to resign,” he said, “I’m ready to do so.”

Richardson said the bill doesn’t have any consequences for him, since he’s not running for reelection in the fall for another two-year term in the Florida House. He called the bill “good public policy.”

“It will lessen political opportunism by requiring candidates to make a full commitment to the office they are seeking,” he said.

The legislation — sponsored by Republicans Travis Hutson of Palm Coast in the Senate and David Santiago of Deltona in the House — is touted as a way to even the landscape for Florida candidates seeking federal office.

A staff analysis of the bill predicts it would reduce the “domino effect” of special elections caused when an elected official wins a congressional seat, resigns, and then an election is needed to fill his or her seat — an election that usually attracts other officeholders.

Under the proposed rules, state and local elections could be called the same year to replace the outgoing federal candidate. For instance, six of the 13 Miami-Dade commission seats are already up for reelection in August. The board could add Barreiro’s seat to that ballot rather than schedule a special election in 2019 should the sitting commissioner win in November and then quit.

“Part of the purpose of this is also to save money,” said J.C. Planas, an elections lawyer and former Republican member of the Florida House.

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

This post was updated to reflect the fact that Marvin Dunn has announced he no longer plans to run for Congress.

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