In handcuffs on a Key West highway after a drunken-driving arrest three years ago, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz told police his image couldn’t recover from that moment.
“Do what you gotta do,” Diaz said during the Jan. 19, 2015, traffic stop after he was clocked going 74 mph on his Harley-Davidson in a 30-mph zone. Police body cameras captured his remarks. “My career is ended. It’s over.”
The former Sweetwater mayor has a high-stakes chance to prove the prophecy wrong as he faces two challengers in the Aug. 28 primary for his District 12 seat.
Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party said the only candidate it recruited to the three commission races with Republican incumbents is Diaz challenger Patricio Moreno. Xavier Suarez, a commissioner representing the Miami area whose seat isn’t up for two years, took the rare step of endorsing a fellow commissioner’s challenger when he announced his supporter for Diaz opponent Rafael Pineyro.
Pineyro, a former chief of staff in the Doral mayor’s office, has amassed a campaign war chest that’s more than twice as large as any of the nine other challengers in the commission races.
Some of that money came from donors with ties to American Dream Miami, the $4 billion retail theme park slated for District 12. Though Diaz supported approval of the mega-mall project, he also insisted on a ban on county subsidies that developer Triple Five opposed.
For Diaz, who was acquitted of the drunken-driving charge after he declined to take sobriety tests, the 2018 election offers one last test of his staying power on a commission where he has held a seat since 2002. Term limits, which took effect in 2012, bar him from seeking another four-year term if he’s reelected this year.
“Look, I went through the hardest moment in my life when I was in Key West. I was exonerated by six members of the community through a jury. Now, that is a very difficult thing to do. Most people would take a plea. ... Am I proud of going through all that? No. Did I learn? Yes.”
Diaz, who turns 58 the day before the Aug. 28 primary, is focusing his campaign on county projects in District 12, an overwhelmingly Hispanic area that includes Doral and suburbs west of Hialeah.
The 836 expressway runs through it, and Diaz was the prime backer of legislation needed to construct a new park-and-ride facility off the toll highway best known as the Dolphin. It will let commuters take new express buses running on the shoulder back and forth from Miami. “This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, like many of the other [transit] projects we’re hearing about,” Diaz said. “By the end of the year, this will be done.”
He also voted for extending the 836 into West Kendall, a project that would expand tolling to the new 14 miles of expressway and bring more vehicles onto the existing highway. A final vote on the plan is scheduled for September.
Tolls on the 836 are set by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, an agency that’s governed by a board of state and county appointees. Pineyro, 34, has faulted the county for not using its influence — Mayor Carlos Gimenez is now chairman of the MDX — to ease the costs for everyday drivers.
“We’re not going to eliminate tolls. That’s not going to be possible to do. But we have to do programs that alleviate the residents,” Pineyro said during a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board. “If you’re a student, if you’re a senior, if you’re a veteran — everyone cannot pay the same.”
He didn’t have a definitive answer when asked if discounts for such large groups of the population would simply mean higher tolls for everyone else. Pineyro worked as a top aide under two Doral mayors, staying as chief of staff after Juan Carlos “J.C.” Bermudez ousted Luigi Boria in 2016. Pineyro didn’t stay with Bermudez long, leaving the city payroll in 2017. He was running for a City Commission seat when he opted to switch to the District 12 race and take on Diaz.
Bermudez has endorsed Diaz, while Boria backs Pineyro. For a challenger, Pineyro has raised an impressive amount of money: $81,000 in his campaign alone. That’s still a fraction of the nearly $450,000 Diaz has in his campaign account. The four-term commissioner has another $275,000 to spend from his We The People political committee, which is receiving fundraising help from Gimenez, according to a recent disclosure forum.
Some of Pineyro’s donors have ties to the family behind the proposed American Dream Miami mega-mall on the northern edge of District 12, or to the effort to get the project approved. Diaz sponsored the legislation that gave the project final zoning approval earlier this year, but he also backed a ban on county subsidies that developer Triple Five opposed. Both Triple Five and Pineyro said there’s no connection between the developer and Pineyro’s donors. Both also pointed out Triple Five has donated more than $30,000 directly to Diaz.
For Moreno, the backing of the Democratic Party hasn’t helped much with fundraising. The party’s local chairman, Juan Cuba, helped Moreno, who made an unsuccessful run for the state House in 2016, submit his filing papers in June. Cuba has since donated $150 personally to Moreno, the only registered Democrat in the District 12 race. But Moreno has raised less than $2,500, while the county Democratic Party gave $9,500 to District 6 Commissioner Rebeca Sosa’s Democratic challenger, Maryin Vargas.
So far, the harshest attacks have come from unknown backers going after Diaz. A Tallahassee-based political committee, Voter Interest Group, funded anti-Diaz mailers with still footage from his arrest. A plane on Aug. 2 towed a banner calling Diaz a corrupt drunk in Spanish. It’s not known who paid for the banner. Diaz accused Pineyro of being behind the advertising; Pineyro condemned the attack ads.
First elected to the commission in 2002, Diaz has weathered scandals before. His employer now is a construction outsourcing company. In 2008, he worked for the founders of Pharmed Group, a Miami medical-supply company that collapsed amid allegations of improper business dealings. While working for a company controlled by Pharmed’s owners, Diaz sponsored legislation requiring the county’s Jackson hospital system to use local suppliers like Pharmed. The commissioner raised eyebrows for taking a fishing trip to Cancun with a developer whose project he supported. Diaz later worked for a company that was a contractor at the county-owned Miami International Airport.
Moreno, 51, has a bankruptcy in his past, a 2013 filing he blamed on a messy divorce in the midst of a rocky real estate market. He was also charged with resisting arrest in Doral in 2009 — a charge later dropped by prosecutors. Moreno said it occurred after he objected to a police officer’s string of questions after Moreno left his car running outside of a drugstore with his teenage daughter still in the passenger seat.
Court records also show past financial problems for Pineyro. A lender won a $411,000 judgment against him in 2012 in a foreclosure case, forcing a courthouse sale of a house. Pineyro said he had assumed ownership of the family house, which he lost after his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and they stopped paying the mortgage to cover medical bills.
A real estate agent, Moreno ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for a Florida House seat and took 48 percent of the vote in a November race won by Republican Carlos Trujillo. He said he’s running for county commissioner in part out of outrage over Miami-Dade’s new policy to accept immigration detention requests from federal authorities.
Known as “detainers,” they add 48 hours of detention to a local inmate’s time in a county jail in order to give federal immigration agents more time to apprehend them for possible deportation. Miami-Dade stopped honoring them in 2013, but started accepting them again in 2017 after President Donald Trump threatened a loss of federal funds for jurisdictions offering immigration offenders “sanctuary.”
“It’s inhumane. It’s anti-American. And it’s anti-Christian,” Moreno said. “And the mayor and Pepe Diaz agree with it.”
The race features three immigrants: Diaz is from Cuba, Pineyro is from Venezuela, and Moreno is from the Dominican Republic.
PIneyro, an independent, said he would vote against the resolution that Diaz, a Republican, supported in 2017 that established county policy to accept the detainers, legislation backed by Gimenez. “We have to obey the law. However, we also have to remain a country of immigrants,” he said.
Diaz left some room for him reversing his vote if he found the justification from 2017 had changed. Miami-Dade has not received an influx of new federal funds or seen so-called “sanctuary” cities that defied Trump’s demands lose federal grants. Two residents recently sued Miami-Dade for being turned over to immigration authorities after ending up in a county jail over not having valid driver licenses.
“The way it was stated, it was about criminals,” Diaz told the Editorial Board. “The way I look at it now, probably I’ll be looking at it a little differently.”
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.