Former federal judge nominee to seek Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in Congress

Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, an attorney and former nominee for the federal bench, plans to run for Florida’s 27th congressional district.
Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, an attorney and former nominee for the federal bench, plans to run for Florida’s 27th congressional district. Courtesy

The teeming Democratic race to replace U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is about to get more crowded: Mary Barzee Flores, a well-regarded local attorney and former circuit court judge, plans to launch her candidacy Wednesday for Florida’s congressional district.

Barzee Flores would become the sixth Democrat vying for the Democratic-leaning seat. Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, said in April she wouldn’t seek reelection after 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district stretches down the southeast coast of Miami-Dade County, from North Bay Village to Cutler Bay; Hillary Clinton won it by 20 percentage points.

“I’ve always been interested in politics as a spectator sport, and as a spectator, it’s been national politics that have interested me,” Barzee Flores told the Miami Herald in an exclusive interview Tuesday, adding that she’s contemplated a candidacy for six to eight years. “And after this last election, I have come to believe that I have to do it — not just want to.”

She intends to run on a platform of keeping and improving the Affordable Care Act, fighting climate change, promoting public education, and advocating for military veterans. Her father served in World War II and her mother as a nurse in Korea.

Barzee Flores, 54, is a lifetime district resident who worked as an assistant federal public defender for 14 years before serving eight years as an elected judge on Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit. She’s been in private practice with the Miami law firm of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff and Sitterson since 2011.

Two years ago, Barzee Flores seemed destined for the federal bench, after then-President Barack Obama called her “highly qualified” and nominated her for a judgeship in February 2015. But Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who had allowed Barzee Flores’ name to be forwarded to Obama, ultimately blocked her nomination to the lifetime appointment, a move her backers from both sides of the political aisle viewed as partisan.

Explaining his decision in an unaired Orlando TV interview last year, which was later reported on by Politico, Rubio cited “concerns” over whether Barzee Flores fully disclosed her prior support for the American Civil Liberties Union and Emily’s List, which promotes abortion-rights candidates. He also pointed to Barzee Flores’ involvement in a 2001 trial case where, though she was not lead public defender, Barzee Flores’ client successfully claimed ineffective counsel.

“It didn’t just happen to me, certainly, it happened to Judge Garland. It happened to many Obama nominees,” she said. “It was a symptom of what is wrong in Washington, and it’s evidence of petty partisan politics that I think most voters don’t have the stomach for.”

Barzee Flores, a mother of two, is married to criminal defense attorney Hector Flores, a former assistant federal public defender who works with her brother, attorney William Barzee. Her extensive ties to the legal community are likely to help her fundraise; she estimated, based on advice from her political advisers, she’ll have to collect about $1 million to compete in what could prove to be a bruising primary.

Before graduating from the University of Miami’s law school, Barzee Flores attended UM’s school of music, where she played classical flute and dreamed of being an orchestra conductor. A mentor advised her that men in the male-dominated orchestra world would take better direction from a woman with a J.D. or M.B.A. — so she heeded his advice. But she ended up loving the law, she said.

Barzee Flores started working at 15, she said, a year after her father died. She washed dishes at a Pizza Hut on LeJeune Road and eventually also took jobs as a maid, cook, waitress and bartender.

“Before I was out of my teens, I had already seen sexual harassment and sexual discrimination in the workplace, work and hour violations, union-busting,” she said.

The Democratic field so far comprises state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, state Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell formed an exploratory committee as he considers a run; Matt Haggman, program director for the Knight Foundation, resigned his position last week amid political chatter that he too might seek the seat.

Three Republicans — County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, former Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado and Maria Peiro — have announced candidacies.

No Democrats have filed yet to challenge Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a sophomore lawmaker, in the neighboring swing 26th district, though Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican state Sen. Anitere Flores in 2016, has been weighing a bid.