This is one of four profiles about the candidates for the May 22 special election for the District 5 seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission, which was vacated by Bruno Barreiro so that he could run for Congress. We've also published profiles on candidates Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Carlos Garin, and Zoraida Barreiro.
When Hurricane Irma threatened, Eileen Higgins said goodbye to her Miami condo and headed north to Orlando with some cash, clothes and Snickers bars. After the storm passed, she was in a Little Haiti warehouse that community groups had secured to hand out food, gas, diapers and other supplies in poor neighborhoods waiting for help.
"In emergencies, government must respond. And it could have responded better. We all know that. But we have to respond, too," said Higgins, a former Peace Corps director who now runs a small marketing company for Miami businesses.
"You get on the phone. Have a warehouse we can borrow? Who has gas?" she said. "We were all making those calls."
Now running for an open seat on the County Commission, Higgins uses her tour through both sides of Miami's prosperity gap as a campaign theme.
She's the wealthiest of four candidates on paper, with her financial disclosure form listing more than $2 million in assets. She and her sister have four Orangetheory Fitness franchises in New Mexico, where they grew up. Last year, Higgins checked out an audio version of "Moby Dick" from the Miami-Dade library and wrote 24 blog posts about each hour of the epic tale — sometimes linking to homemade YouTube parodies of key scenes.
Higgins has also spent time at the Miami-Dade morgue, part of her research for a community group pitching a new approach to reducing chronic gun violence. She remembers being particularly frustrated at the lack of rush-hour buses running north when she took public transportation to an evening church meeting in Opa-locka. And she thinks Miami-Dade is leading the way in Florida when it comes to issuing civil citations to young offenders, avoiding the arrest records that can stigmatize adults for youthful mistakes.
"In Miami-Dade County, we are not arresting kids for stupid crap," she said. "I have met children, now young adults, who were arrested for something foolish. They haven't been able to get a job or rent an apartment. They were foolish kid mistakes. If I had done it, maybe they would have called my parents. But add a little brownness, add a little blackness, and you're arrested."
Maggie Fernandez, a former county employee who is now a climate-change activist, serves as treasurer for Higgins' campaign, which has raised $25,000 for the May 22 special election. The two served on citizen groups aimed at researching county issues — a committee that spent weekends last summer analyzing the proposed 2018 budget, and another panel pushing reforms of the Miami-Dade charter.
"She really wants to do good things," Fernandez said. "When she talks about Miami being good for some people, but not good for all people, that resonates with me."
Higgins made Miami her permanent home about five years ago after leaving her job at the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration. Before that, she was a Peace Corps director in Belize and a marketing executive that included a stint working for Jose Cuervo.
"I wanted a home," she said of her move to Miami. "I'm a person who has moved a lot."
She admits to some mistakes speaking Spanish, putting her at a disadvantage in a district anchored by Little Havana. Still, she joined District 5 rivals Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Carlos Garin for a Spanish-language debate moderated by Felix Guillermo on América TeVé's Preparen Apunten Voten on March 9 and fielded questions for nearly an hour on the pre-taped show.
Higgins has the backing of some Democratic mainstays, including Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, and several unions in and out of county government, adding some political heft to a first-time campaign. She's also suffered some stumbles. She and Fernandez said they didn't realize an amended campaign-finance report had erroneously dropped half of the campaign's donations until the Miami Herald inquired.
But less than a month into her debut run for elected office, Higgins already has at least one attack ad under her belt. A campaign mailer attacks the two leading candidates in the race — Zoraida Barreiro, wife of the former commissioner, and Diaz de la Portilla, whose brother used to serve on the commission.
"Aren't you tired of all the political dynasties?" reads the mailer. It features portraits of the Barreiros, the Diaz de la Portillas and three members of America's most prominent political family of the moment: President Donald Trump and children Ivanka and Donald Jr.
"This may be my first campaign," Higgins said during a Miami Beach event after a voter complimented her on the mailer, "but it's not my first rodeo."
Voting in District 5
Early voting runs from Saturday, May 12, to Sunday, May 20. Polls open at 8 a.m. each day and close at 6 p.m., except for Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20. On those days, polls close at 4 p.m. The nonpartisan primary is open to all registered voters living in Miami-Dade's District 5. Election Day is May 22, with polls open that day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Click here for poll places on Election Day, and here for a sample ballot. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election will be held June 19 between the top two finishers .
Early voting is available at the following locations:
▪ Hispanic Branch Library, 1398 SW First St., Miami
▪ Miami Beach City Hall, 1700 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach
▪ Shenandoah Branch Library, 2111 SW 19th St., Miami
▪ Stephen P. Clark Government Center, Elections Branch Office, 111 NW First St. (Lobby), Miami