The race to replace Bruno Barreiro on the Miami-Dade commission will test the political appeal of two names in his urban district: Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla.
The 5 p.m. filing deadline for the open District 5 seat passed on Saturday with four candidates signed up to run for the May 22 special election. Facing two campaign rookies are two candidates with well-known names and extensive ties to the political establishment: Zoraida Barreiro, the former commissioner's wife and a third-place finisher in a Miami commission race last year; and Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator whose brothers are also former office holders.
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The filings set up a fundraising and campaigning sprint over the next five weeks for Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla and the two first-time contenders: broadcaster Carlos Garin and activist Eileen Higgins.
Garin has worked in Spanish-language media and as an actor, though his financial-disclosure form shows he only received income last year from teaching art and acting classes and driving for Uber and Lyft. Higgins runs a small marketing firm, and was president of Miami's Downtown Democrats organization before filing for District 5.
Like most county posts, county commissioner is a nonpartisan position and all candidates compete in a single primary. Higgins is the only registered Democrat in the race; the other three are Republicans, according to voter records and interviews. Bruno Barreiro, who held the seat for 20 years, is running for the Republican nomination to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida's 27th District.
He did not have to resign immediately to seek the open congressional seat, and his timing set up the special election just two months before other commissioners on the 13-member commission face their own elections during the statewide primary on Aug. 28. The winner of the special election gets to finish out the rest of Barreiro's four-year term until the 2020 elections, and then would be eligible to run for reelection twice. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers compete in a runoff on June 19.
District 5 is a largely Hispanic district that stretches from Little Havana to South Beach in Miami Beach, and winds through parts of downtown Miami and Miami Beach's condo canyons.
With Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla running, the District 5 race sets up a contest between two power centers in Miami politics. Diaz de la Portilla, a political consultant, helped former Miami mayor Joe Carollo win a City Commission seat last fall against Zoraida Barreiro, who finished third in the primary election. She and her husband then appeared in a a pro-Carollo campaign flier in the runoff that was seen as a tacit endorsement of her former rival.
Carollo, a top foe of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and his choice for city manager, Emilio Gonzalez, also received help from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the mayor's family in the city campaign. Carollo has not said who he will support in the District 5 race, and neither have the two mayors.
In pursuing a commission seat her husband held for 20 years, Barreiro, 50, hopes to win her first elected position. She works in the Barreiro family's company, Fatima Healthcare. She cited the "housing crisis," transportation and the environment as top priorities. "I am keenly aware of all the issues we deal with and will fight to represent our area," she said in a statement.
Diaz de la Portilla, 53, represented parts of District 5 while a state senator during the 2000s. When he left the Senate, brother Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a former county commissioner, won the seat. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is now a lobbyist before the county commission; a top client is the proposed American Dream Miami retail theme park.
Alex Diaz de la Portilla lost a bid in 2017 to return to the state Senate. His filing forms list $95,000 in income from his political consulting firm, First Stone Management, which, according to Politico, generated a substantial chunk of its revenue in 2016 from brother Miguel's unsuccessful reelection campaign in the state senate.
For the District 5 race, Diaz de la Portilla cast the contest as one between an experienced lawmaker and a newcomer seeking office based on a last name. "There are a lot of people who don't think this election should be about naming someone, or anybody inheriting the position," he said. "We have serious transportation issues. We have serious infrastructure issues. We have unaffordable rents."
Garin, 53, was the host of "Al Ritmo de la Vida" on La Poderosa 670-AM, but said he is no longer on the air there. A change-of-address form Garin filed with the Elections Department in March listed a Poinciana Avenue address outside of the district, which is the home of his girlfriend and campaign treasurer, Clara Garcia. County rules require a commission candidate to live in the district within six months of the filing deadline.
On Sunday, Garcia said Garin rents the Brickell-area apartment listed as his residence in the filing forms and on his driver's license, making him a District 5 resident. Garcia said Garin shares the Brickell unit with a roommate and she described the address change from March to her residence as a way to keep his mail secure. "I said to him: You can change your mailing address to my address," she said. Garcia also said Garin's current voter registration lists the Brickell-area apartment on Southwest 10th Street.
In an interview before the Miami Herald obtained the change-of-address form, the Cuban-born Garin described himself as an activist against the Castro regime until, according to a campaign biography, he left for exile in Ecuador and then, starting in 2006, the United States. A campaign flier touts a range of economic and employment initiatives, as well as the importance of libraries, theaters and art galleries. It included the slogan: "A PEOPLE WITHOUT CULTURE, IS A PEOPLE WITHOUT MEMORY, IS A SLAVE PEOPLE."
In the interview, Garin said District 5 deserved a fresh voice.
"We need change," Garin said in the interview. "We need new politics."
With a net worth listed at $2.3 million, Higgins, 53, is the wealthiest of the four candidates. She describes herself as a transit rider and a community activist, with a background in both corporate marketing and the Peace Corps.
"I decided to run because I wanted to represent my neighbors," she said in a statement. "The nexus between housing costs, low-wage jobs and poor transit are holding our county back from achieving its potential. I’m running for commissioner because I don’t want to “read” about these issues any more, I want to solve them."
The rare open seat on a County Commission not yet governed by term limits (the voter-approved two-term limit won't force about half of the commission to leave until 2020) looked like an opportunity for Miami Beach to field a candidate for a district that straddles Biscayne Bay. But each filed candidate lists a Miami address.
Former Democratic congressman Joe Garcia and Miami Beach commissioner Michael Gongora had flirted with runs, but opted against them. Former Miami Beach commissioner MIchael Grieco also considered a comeback run for District 5, but that ended up not being an option.
In October, Grieco was banned from running for public office for a year after he secured a plea deal for his role in a campaign-finance scandal. Grieco asked a judge to end his probation after six months — which was allowed for in the deal — but a hearing wasn't scheduled until May 1, more than two weeks after the filing deadline.
Grieco and his criminal defense attorney Ben Kuehne did not respond to a request for comment.