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 Carlos Garin, Eileen Higgins and Zoraida Barreiro.
Dozens of smiling senior citizens gathered in the activity room of the Little Havana center for a campaign event centered around Mother's Day, but the candidate wasn't there for happy talk.
"Lies, lies lies," Alex Diaz de la Portilla said in Spanish to a clapping crowd as he railed on attacks against him in the race for an open seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission. "I have to explain to my mother: This is politics."
The former state senator and professional campaign consultant doesn't mind polarizing the race to succeed Bruno Barreiro as the District 5 commissioner, a contest that had looked like a glide path for Barreiro's wife, Zoraida, before Diaz de la Portilla announced his own run. Now there's a slugfest under way in a district that stretches from Little Havana to the Miami Beach coast.
Barreiro's camp is producing ads touting Diaz de la Portilla's entanglements with the law, and Diaz de la Portilla is trying to brand Cuban immigrant Zoraida Barreiro an enabler of Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro because a supporter owned Citgo stations.
For Diaz de la Portilla, it's a return to the political maw that he seems to relish, dismissing attacks on him as fear from a lobbying industry that prefers more compliant officeholders.
"You can't fool the people," he said after his speech at the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center off Calle Ocho. "This is a campaign of the truth."
He has faced foreclosure proceedings and campaign-finance violations, been arrested after police said he acted belligerently in a Boston hotel room six years ago, and his ex-wife accused him of stalking after they separated. Diaz de la Portilla, who won the endorsement of the county's police union for the District 5 race and has raised about $56,000 for his campaign committee, denies wrongdoing in all the matters, notes prosecutors opted against pursuing charges in the Boston incident, and he blamed the ongoing foreclosure on a messy divorce.
Foreclosure proceedings are under way over years of unpaid mortgage payments for his house on the 1500 block of Southwest 19th Street. It's the same address Diaz de la Portilla listed on his driver's license as proof he lives in District 5. The next hearing in the proceedings against Diaz de la Portilla and ex-wife Claudia Davant, a Tallahassee lobbyist, is scheduled for June 4. A 2017 court filing by Wells Fargo said no mortgage payments had been made on the 2005 loan since 2012.
If none of the four District 5 candidates receives a majority on May 22, a runoff between the top two finishers will be held June 19.
Diaz de la Portilla is running to be the second county commissioner in his family. Brother Miguel, also a former state senator, served on the commission in the 1990s, and now is a lawyer and lobbyist shepherding the American Dream Miami mega-mall project toward approval before the 13-member board. The mega-mall project is scheduled for a final vote Thursday, days before the May 22 nonpartisan primary that will fill Barreiro's empty seat if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Diaz de la Portilla said he would recuse himself from votes involving Miguel's clients.
At the Little Havana stop, Diaz de la Portilla said he's winning support from voters who depend on the county for basic services and not hyped projects like the new Brightline express rail out of Miami that ferried elected officials on a VIP run that day.
"These people don't care about fancy trains going to Orlando," he said. "They care about buses. They care about air-conditioned buses."
"You have downtown Miami, only for the rich," he said. "What I care about is people who live here."
Diaz de la Portilla's populist streak fits the #MAGA hashtag he peppered through his tweets last year in his failed bid to return to the state Senate, invoking the campaign slogan of President Donald Trump. Joe Carollo, the Miami city commissioner and former mayor, said Diaz de la Portilla isn't welcome in some County Hall circles.
"He's not going to go along with established procedures," said Carollo. "There are many groups of lobbyists that don't want to see him there. Because they can't manipulate him."
Diaz de la Portilla rejects the idea that he's a political brawler, pointing to his rise in the state Senate to the senior leadership position in the Republican-controlled chamber. As majority leader in 2009, he's credited with strong-arming the state's Transportation Department into reversing a decision to strip state funds from the Miami Port Tunnel, a backtrack that led to its construction five years later. "He was not going to let it go without a fight," said Ken Pruitt, a former Florida senator. "He's tenacious."
His financial disclosure lists $95,000 in income from First Stone Management, the firm that collects money for his work as a campaign consultant. The firm took in nearly $1 milion from Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's failed reelection campaign for the Florida Senate in 2016, according to Politico.
Carollo also tapped Alex Diaz de la Portilla for help in his City Commision race last year in a Miami district that's surrounded by Miami-Dade's District 5. The contest featured a proxy fight between Diaz de la Portilla and his future rival, since Zoraida Barreiro was also running for the city seat being vacated by Carollo's term-limited brother, Frank.
The two Carollos have since chosen opposite sides in the race for the next county commissioner to represent that part of Miami. Frank Carollo has not responded to inteview requests about his backing of the Barreiro campaign, but Joe Carollo attempted to be diplomatic about his predecessor in Miami's District 3.
"My brother is my brother," Joe Carollo said Friday. "We both have different styles."
Diaz de la Portilla made no effort to play nice.
"Frank left this district in shambles," he wrote a reporter asking about the Carollo endorsements. "Joe and I will clean it up."
ALEX DIAZ DE LA PORTILLA
Education: Attended the University of Miami
Neighborhood: The Roads
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