The sprint to replace Bruno Barreiro as a Miami-Dade commissioner could take less than 60 days, with a special election called Wednesday for May 22 and two familiar names in local politics spreading word that they’re ready to compete for the rare open seat.
Zoraida Barreiro, wife of the former commissioner, and Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator and member of a well-known political family, both said this week that they’re interested in running for the District 5 seat that Bruno Barreiro held for 20 years before resigning Saturday to compete full time to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, in Congress.
“I’m interested in running. I was born and raised in that district,” Diaz de la Portilla, a former Republican majority leader in Tallahassee, said Wednesday after attending the commission meeting that authorized the special election. “I could hit the ground running on Day One.” Zoraida Barreiro also attended the meeting. “I plan to run for the seat,” she said a few hours after the meeting convened.
Bruno Barreiro did not need to leave his post so quickly, and his abrupt departure required the remaining 12 commissioners to either temporarily appoint someone to his seat until previously scheduled countywide elections on Aug. 28 or spend up to $1 million on a special election. With one No vote, commissioners went with the second option and agreed to the Election Department’s request to hold balloting on an accelerated schedule in order to avoid logistical overlap with the August primaries.
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“Democracy is never cheap,” Commissioner Javier Souto said after proposing the legislation needed to hold the special election.
Miami-Dade may spend only $500,000 on the District 5 contest if one candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote on May 22 and avoids a runoff. The $1 million cost is relatively small in the context of Miami-Dade’s $7.4 billion budget — the county also plans to spend $1 million this year to subsidize Miami-Dade’s preparations for the 2020 Super Bowl, and its total election spending plan for 2018 tops $22 million.
But the potential $1 million cost drew criticism from opponents of the push for a quick special election, who argued that the haste to fill the seat was needlessly expensive given the approach of a countywide election that’s already in the budget.
“When we’re making these decisions, we need to consider our taxpayers’ dollars,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who was appointed to her seat in late 2005 until she could face voters in a regular countywide election the following summer. “If we call a special election, we’d have to pay for that election and then turn around in August and pay for another election.”
Edmonson ultimately voted with the other commissioners to hold a special election instead of appointing someone to fill the seat until a regular election was held — a process that could have left the appointee in office until Nov. 6 if the Aug. 28 contest required a runoff. The only No vote was Daniella Levine Cava, who criticized the process as too rushed to give candidates a chance to consider a race required by Barreiro’s abrupt resignation.
“This does a disservice to the voters of District 5,” she said.
The winner of the election would finish out Barreiro’s final term as a commissioner, through the fall of 2020. The district includes parts of downtown Miami, along with Little Havana, Brickell, Shenandoah and other city neighborhoods before stretching over the MacArthur Causeway to run through South Beach and coastal Miami Beach. County statistics show the majority-Hispanic district has about 95,000 registered voters, with Democrats accounting for 36 percent of the electorate, just barely ahead of independents. Republicans make up 28 percent of the electorate.
County commission seats are non-partisan, with a single primary that can decide the election if a candidate exceeds 50 percent of the vote.
With Zoraida Barreiro — a Republican and an executive at the Barreiro family’s healthcare company who lost a race for Miami City Commission last year —and Diaz de la Portilla — a political consultant who lost a state Senate race last year — the contest for District 5 likely will offer a case study in the complex family connections that sometimes define Miami politics.
Diaz de la Portilla worked on former Miami mayor Joe Carollo’s recent campaign for Miami commissioner, as did Tania Cruz Gimenez, the daughter-in-law of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Carollo beat Zoraida Barreiro in that election to win the seat being vacated by his brother, Frank Carollo. Frank Carollo hasn’t said publicly whether he wants to run for Barreiro’s old seat. One of Diaz de la Portilla’s brothers, Miguel, served on the County Commission in the 1990s.
Candidates have through April 14 to file to represent District 5. If a runoff is needed, it would be held June 19.
Christina White, the county’s election director, urged commissioners not to hold the first election in June or July, as the county charter would have allowed. With her agency forced to send out absentee ballots in July for the late August primaries, White said managing a District 5 contest at the same time would cause too many complications.
“It starts to get into very tricky territory,” she said.
Florida’s newly expanded “resign-to-run” law required Barreiro to submit his resignation sometime this month in order to remain a candidate for the 27th Congressional District contest. But the law — which forces elected officials to surrender their current offices before seeking new ones — also allowed Barreiro to delay the effective date of the resignation through the fall.
Travis Huston, the Florida senator who sponsored the state legislation, said he was puzzled that Barreiro would resign just a day after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on March 30.
“The intent and design of the law that passed was to avoid” special elections, he said, and give candidates the “ability to serve their full terms.”
Barreiro responded to the criticism on his departure date when he addressed his former colleagues during Wednesday’s emergency meeting. He stepped up to one of two microphones reserved for the public for what he said was his first time speaking from the well of the chambers since joining the 13-member board in 1998.
He denied resigning abruptly to give his wife a short campaign in which candidates with lesser-known last names wouldn’t have long to build support. Instead Barreiro said his contest for the Republican nomination in the congressional race had to take priority over his duties as an outgoing county commissioner.
“I would be doing a disservice to myself, running for office. And doing a disservice to the constituents of District 5 if I did not vacate the seat and let them have the opportunity to elect their representative,” he said. “Realistically, I would have missed a lot of votes, plain and simple.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.