In a February special election befitting the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” thousands of Miami voters will cast ballots this month to decide who will run in an election to decide who will run in an election to claim a state House of Representatives seat vacated by a disgraced lawmaker.
Triggered by Daisy Baez’s resignation late last year, the effort to fill Florida’s open House District 114 seat could ultimately cost Florida taxpayers $1.2 million while requiring some voters to head to the polls as many as four times in nine months. On Feb. 20, Republican voters will officially kick off the process by naming their nominee for the seat. There is no Democratic primary before the May election because that party has only one candidate.
Whoever wins the seat outright in the special election, it’s a virtual guarantee that person won’t pass a single bill or take one vote of significance before being forced to win one and perhaps two more elections if another primary comes into play. It’s possible that the winner in May could be out by November.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” said Jose Pazos, who is running against Andrew Vargas in the Republican primary.
So, why exactly is Miami doing this?
After Baez admitted that she’d lied on her voter’s registration form about living in the district she was elected to represent, Gov. Rick Scott called a special election to replace the Democrat lawmaker and serve out the remainder of her term. He chose May 1 as the date, which is barely six months before the November 2018 elections, during which voters have to decide who will claim the next two-year term for the seat.
In his official order, Scott said state law requires him to call a special election when there is a vacancy. But the law also says there’s no mandate when a legislative session does not fall during the remainder of the term to be filled, as is the case with Baez’s seat.
In fact, just two months after Baez resigned, Scott agreed to waive special elections to replace Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, who died of cancer in December, and Sen. Jack Latvala, who left his seat in the face of multiple allegations of sexual impropriety. In Latavala’s case, the elections supervisors in Pinellas and Pasco counties, where Latvala’s district lies, said they lobbied Scott to save the area the headache given how little time remained in Latvala’s term.
“No one disagreed with the contention that the timing and the cost made absolutely no sense whatsoever,” said Brian Corley, the elections supervisor from Pasco.
A Scott spokesman said the fact that Baez stepped down in early November as opposed to late December played a determining role in holding a special election to replace her, as did the opinion of Miami-Dade Elections supervisor Christina White. When it came to filling the seats vacated by Latvala and Hahnfeldt, the state received different feedback.
“We always ask the supervisors what they recommend, what their guidance is,” said spokesman McKinley Lewis.
But some in the race question whether politics is at play.
Fernando Diez, a political strategist working with the campaign of lone Democratic candidate Javier Fernandez, believes Florida’s Republican governor scheduled the special election for the seat in May because Republicans believe they have a better chance to reclaim the swing district in a low-turnout event. Similarly, Pazos believes his own party is trying to boost the better-funded Vargas, whose law partner is veteran Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo, by holding the primary the day after President’s Day.
By holding an election in May, the victor potentially becomes a “red-shirt” freshman legislator by gaining an extra six months on his tenure without affecting term limit. Farther down the road, that can help boost chances for becoming House Speaker in 2026.
“I don’t think we should be spending taxpayers dollars if we don’t need to, but my understanding is the Republican governor called this election because it’s in their benefit to call it now,” said Diez.
Vargas called the assertion “100 percent false.” And the Florida Democratic Party not only criticized Scott recently for not holding special elections to replace Latvala and Hahnfeldt, it also sued the state unsuccessfully last year to try and force an expedited special election to fill the seat before the ongoing legislative session.
“This isn’t about politics,” a party spokeswoman wrote last week in a press release. “This is about ensuring all Floridians have access to the services they need.”
Corley, the Pasco County supervisor, and Pinellas elections supervisor Deborah Clark disagree. They say that as as Latvala’s long and slow fall from power became more likely to end in his resignation, they proactively reached out to the state to ask that Scott not put the voters through multiple elections over one seat.
Miami-Dade’s White, on the other hand, took a more neutral stance, telling Scott’s elections department that she’d accept its decision after the State Department emailed to say that a special election was “on the horizon.” Once the state decided to hold an election, voting timelines laid out in state law pushed the primaries into February and the general into May.
“I will of course comply with whatever date the Governor deems appropriate for these elections,” White wrote to Maria Matthews, director of Florida’s Division of Elections.
Vargas is taking a similar attitude, saying “I don’t make the rules.” But he says the relentless campaigning will result in an elected representative who knows the district well, and agrees that it’s important to have an elected representative in the seat year-round, not just during the ongoing legislative session.
“A legislator’s job isn’t just two months out of the year,” he said. “It’s year-round.”