A Broward County resident and political newcomer is challenging incumbent Bryan Avila for the Florida House seat that represents parts of Hialeah, Virginia Gardens and Miami Springs.
Democrat Rizwan Ahmed’s campaign is a long shot in the solidly Republican District 111, but the 51-year-old real estate agent from Pakistan said he hopes voters will identify with his immigrant background. The district, which is more than 90 percent Hispanic, is home to many immigrants.
“I believe that the voters in my district and quite frankly across the country feel ignored by their representatives,” Ahmed said. “We are running a campaign focused on the people. Their dreams, their concerns, their needs. We have listened to what they’re saying.”
Ahmed added that he never imagined himself running for office but was motivated to enter politics because of the concern he felt about recent events, including the Parkland school shooting and the separation of immigrant children from their parents.
“I said, ‘Why not, let’s give it a shot,’ ” he said.
But in addition to being a Democrat, as a Broward County resident Ahmed is also an outsider. The candidate lives in Sunrise and won’t be able to vote for himself in the race, although he said he plans to move into the area if he’s elected. Ahmed said he chose to run in District 111 because his wife is a Colombian immigrant and he wanted to represent a Hispanic area. He also noted that if he’d run in Sunrise, he would have faced stiff competition in the Democratic primary. (There were no Democratic challengers in District 111.)
“I have a pretty good guess that if I run from this area, District 111, I don’t have to do a primary,” said Ahmed. “That’s why I qualified and I’m running second. So it was a good guess.”
If campaign contributions are any indication, Ahmed is running a distant second. Avila, who grew up in Hialeah and has represented the area since 2014, has raised more than $120,000 compared to Ahmed’s $17,000, close to $5,000 of which he loaned himself.
Avila served as majority deputy whip during his most recent term and has served as vice chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County. The 34-year-old son of Cuban immigrants is an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College and a second lieutenant in the Florida Army National Guard.
Despite their political differences, both candidates agree that tolls should be lowered and that red-light camera tickets pose a financial burden for residents. Avila did not respond to requests for an interview, but he has pushed for legislation to lower tolls and he tried unsuccessfully this year to pass a law that would have shut down red-light cameras by 2021. On his campaign website, Avila lists his priorities as smaller government, economic freedom, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and “conservative family values.”
Ahmed said that if he’s elected, he also plans to advocate for toll reductions and an end to red-light cameras, as well as affordable home insurance for seniors, increased gun control measures, more funding for public education and a higher minimum wage. District 111 is home to 163,000 people, nearly 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to census data. In 2016, the median household income was roughly $27,000.
“The area is majority working-class people,” said Ahmed. The candidate said he’d work to raise the Florida minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to at least $11.25. “Tell me how a person is supposed to support himself or herself with a salary like that?” he said, referring to the current minimum wage.
Although Ahmed has not previously held public office, he said he’s involved in local issues in Sunrise and helped set up the Islamic Center of Broward. Ahmed moved to the United States from Pakistan in 1990 with a degree in business and has lived in South Florida since 1991.
Ahmed has a criminal record in Florida. He was arrested in Miami-Dade County in 1992 for soliciting a prostitute, which he said was a misunderstanding caused by the language barrier when he first moved to the United States. Ahmed said he was trying to help a woman he thought was in trouble, who turned out to be an undercover police officer.
“I tried to help the lady. She turned out to be undercover,” he said. Ahmed told the Miami Herald that the charges were dismissed, but court records show that Ahmed was convicted and spent time in jail.
Ahmed was also arrested in Broward County in 1994 for the illegal use of credit cards and possession of stolen property, but charges were never filed due to insufficient evidence, court records show. Ahmed said the arrest stemmed from a “misunderstanding”.