With about a week left in a high-stakes special election for an open seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission, voters in District 5 have a choice between two candidates who have some stark differences on policy.
Eileen Higgins, a marketing executive active in community groups, finished first in the four-person primary last month, and she's facing second-place finisher Zoraida Barreiro in the June 19 runoff election to represent a district that straddles Miami and Miami Beach.
Barreiro's husband, Bruno Barreiro, resigned his District 5 seat in March to run for Congress in the Republican primary to succeed outgoing Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. Zoraida Barreiro works as an executive at the Barreiro family's healthcare company in Miami.
Higgins, a Democrat, and Zoraida Barreiro, a Republican, both enjoy backing from their political parties for the nonpartisan District 5 seat. Barreiro has outraised Higgins, thanks in part to $95,000 from her husband's congressional campaign. She also received large checks from seven of the top 10 donors to incumbent commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez in the 2016 election cycle. Gimenez, a Republican, is helping Barreiro raise money.
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If Higgins wins, it would tilt the commission in favor of the Democrats. If Barreiro takes the seat, the commission would revert to the six-to-six split that existed when her husband was in office. Commissioner Xavier Suarez is the lone independent on the board.
Along with a partisan divide, the two candidates are on opposite sides of some issues facing Miami-Dade County. Among them:
Affordable Housing: Higgins supports mandatory rules for developers requiring a certain portion of new projects be reserved for workforce housing, with rents or purchase prices low enough for families earning less than $100,000 a year. If developers opted not to include the workforce units, they could pay into the county's affordable-housing fund to support other projects.
"We've got to make it clear that we expect development to include more workforce housing," Higgins said Tuesday. She said she would support different incentives if the commission didn't enact new requirements for developers.
"We don't have the right incentives with the current voluntary system ... I would love if it's mandatory," she said. "But we've got to solve this problem. We can't sit around anymore."
Landmark, a top developer of affordable housing in Miami-Dade, recently donated $5,000 to the Higgins campaign.
Barreiro did not respond to interview requests Monday or Tuesday. In an April meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board, she said she supported a voluntary program for developers with incentives to produce the workforce units, which Miami-Dade offers now.
"I'd hate to do mandatory anything. We have to do incentives," she said. "We have to incentivize the building of more units. Mandatory, I have issues with."
836 Extension: Gimenez and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority are campaigning to add 14 miles to one of the busiest toll roads in the county: the 836 expressway. The new route would extend into Kendall as a way to relieve traffic in the gridlocked suburbs. It would stretch into sensitive wetlands and past the county's Urban Development Boundary, which is designed to protect the Everglades from commercial and residential sprawl.
Barreiro supports the $650 million project, which would be funded through tolls. "This is something that is needed in that area," Barreiro said during a televised debate Sunday on WPLG's "This Week in South Florida." "The residents of Kendall want it. They've been asking for it. They need it."
Higgins opposes the project as a bad idea for the environment and for traffic, saying the county should focus on transit projects instead.
"We're taking our eye off the ball," she said Wednesday. "We are solving today's problems with yesterday's solutions. Why are we building another road? It hasn't helped us before."
Immigration detainers: Bruno Barreiro joined the majority of the County Commission when it voted in 2017 to drop Miami-Dade's "sanctuary" approach toward potential immigration offenders booked at local jails. Prior county policy required county jails to reject federal requests to detain suspected immigration offenders for two days unless they were also facing serious criminal charges. Even then, Miami-Dade would hold them only if Washington agreed to reimburse the county for the additional detention expenses.
Gimenez reversed that policy days after President Donald Trump took office and threatened "sanctuary" jurisdictions with a loss of federal funds if they didn't comply with the detainer requests. In a 9 to 3 vote, the commission backed the mayor's approach.
Higgins said she's against the current policy of accepting detainer requests from immigration authorities.
"I think it's a waste of our money. We're paying our tax dollars to local government and now local government is doing a federal job," said Higgins, a Spanish speaker who was born in Ohio and grew up in New Mexico. "It's not the nicest thing to do to human beings, and it's a complete waste of our money."
In a May interview, Barreiro declined to say how she would vote on the detainer issue if that matter came before the commission again.
"That's a very hot topic," said Barreiro, who was born in Cuba and grew up in New York after arriving in the United States during the Mariel boat lift in 1980. "That's a very, very difficult topic to tackle. ... Because I'm an immigrant, too. I feel the pain of the immigrants that are going through problems.
"However, I know there are laws that needed to be followed," she said. "If it came up again? I would have to give it a lot of thought."
Baylink: Both supported the planned transit link between Miami and Miami Beach during Sunday's WPLG appearance. Initially proposed as a rail link when voters approved a half-percent transportation tax in 2002, the project now may revert to something more affordable, such as express buses on dedicated lanes or smaller guided vehicles known as "personal" rapid transit.
Higgins said other transit projects in Miami-Dade may need to be built first, since the county already has dedicated bus lanes that could be converted to rail in South Dade and has the tracks to send Tri-Rail up the Northeast corridor along the Brightline corridor.
"We need to be able to get some people moving sooner," she said. "Yes, we're going to be working on Baylink. That may need to come second, not first."
Barreiro did not qualify her Baylink support.
"We're obviously going to focus on the beach connector. I'd love to get that started," she said. "When it initially was [pursued after the 2002 vote] the city of Miami Beach didn't want it. Now they do. Now is the time to get on board and get that connection going."
Voting in District 5
Early voting is under way for the District 5 seat of the Miami-Dade County Commission. It runs through Sunday, June 17. Polls open each day at 8 a.m., and close at 6 p.m. on weekdays and at 4 p.m. on weekends. For details on early voting, click here.
Election Day is Tuesday, June 19, when polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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