Democratic state senator plans to run for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in Congress

Then-state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez spoke during news conference at the city of Miami in 2016.
Then-state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez spoke during news conference at the city of Miami in 2016. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Arguing that “the character of our democracy” is at stake, state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez plans to become a candidate for Congress.

The Miami Democrat told the Miami Herald he intends to compete for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in 2018.

“It’s a really important time to run,” Rodríguez said in an interview. “It’s a time when we’re trying to define what country we are, and the character of our democracy.”

Rodríguez, 38, would be the first big-name Democrat to declare a candidacy since Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, shocked the political order last week when she said she wouldn’t seek reelection after 28 years in the U.S. House. Rodríguez could take a few weeks to get his paperwork in order and formally open a fundraising account.

Ros-Lehtinen had already drawn four Democratic challengers before announcing her retirement April 30. In the nine days since, a string of other local politicians have said they might be interested in running for her open, Democratic-leaning seat. She represents the 27th district, a swath of southeastern Miami-Dade County.

Rodríguez, a Harvard-educated Cuban-American lawyer, has spoken to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about his candidacy. He said he spent the last week thinking about “what I could do for the district,” particularly on issues of economic development, taxes and health care.

“I’m excited,” he said. “A lot of the issues I’ve worked on in Tallahassee are equally as relevant at the federal level.”

Since he was first elected to the state House in 2012, the moderate Rodríguez has paid particular attention to consumer issues and environmental policy. On Monday, he wrapped his first lawmaking session in the Senate, where he worked to reform condo rules, fight credit-card skimmers, oppose fracking and secure budget funds for the city of Miami to deal with flooding, infrastructure and sea-level rise.

Rodríguez, known in political circles as J.J.R., is married to Sonia Succar Rodríguez, the granddaughter of former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, a Democrat. Ferré’s daughter-in-law, Republican Helen Aguirre Ferré, is director of regional media affairs at the White House.

In a crowded Democratic primary, Rodríguez would boast a proven fundraising record. He defeated two well-known Republican brothers — Alex and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla — in expensive, high-profile races on his way to the Florida House and Senate. And his Senate and former House districts lie squarely in Ros-Lehtinen’s congressional district. Rodríguez would not need to resign to run.

Already in the Democratic race are businessman Scott Fuhrman, who unsuccessfully challenged Ros-Lehtinen in 2016; Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez; University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person. A single Republican, Maria Peiro, has filed, though Republican Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro said Friday he will seek the seat.