Political newcomer Jose Javier Rodriguez made a strong showing Tuesday against one of Miami-Dade’s most well-known political figures for a seat in the Florida Legislature.
With some polls open late into the night, Rodriguez had a comfortable lead over veteran lawmaker Alex Diaz de la Portilla in the hard-fought battle for state House District 112.
“We’re feeling good,” Rodriguez said.
Getting a lead on Diaz de la Portilla, a strategist who has served in both the state House and Senate, was a sizable challenge.
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Diaz de la Portilla had built-in name recognition, both because of his experience and because his family is a political powerhouse in Miami-Dade County. His older brother Miguel is a state senator. His younger brother Renier has served in the state House and on the Miami-Dade School Board.
Diaz de la Portilla argued he was best suited to serve the district — which includes Brickell, the Roads, Coconut Grove and parts of Coral Gables and Little Havana — because he grew up in the neighborhood.
The Democratic Party pumped more than $25,000 into Rodriguez’s campaign and invested in last-minute mailers attacking his opponent.
Rodriguez, who attended Harvard Law and served in the Peace Corps, said he would look to promote education and economic growth.
In other races, South Floridians opted to send familiar faces back to Tallahassee.
Voters favored incumbent Gwen Margolis over newcomer John Couriel in the closely watched race for Senate District 35.
Couriel, a 34-year-old Republican and former federal prosecutor, mounted a formidable fight for the newly redrawn district, which covers much of eastern Miami-Dade. Not only had he outspent Margolis entering the final weeks of the campaign, he had endorsements from GOP heavy-hitters U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
In the end, the campaign contributions and the connections weren’t enough to defeat the 78-year-old Margolis. Margolis, who is considered an institution in Florida Democratic politics, won her first state House race in 1974 and later served as Senate president from 1990 to 1992.
“I’m delighted,” Margolis said. “This is probably the last time I am going to run, and I know that I am going to represent my constituents well.”
Two Republican state representatives seemed likely to return to Tallahassee, too. State Reps. Erik Fresen and Michael Bileca were ahead in House districts 114 and 115, respectively.
Also capital bound: Democrat Dwight Bullard, who won Senate District 39. The seat was previously held by Bullard’s mother, Larcenia.
Bullard, who served two terms in the state House, withstood a primary challenge from former House Minority Leader Ron Saunders. He was ahead of Republican challenger Scott Hopes by a staggering margin.
“I’m looking forward to putting education at the forefront,” Bullard said. “I think I’ll have a better platform to really delve into those issues.”
In Broward County, Democrat Maria Sachs was the likely winner against fellow legislator Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff in a battle created by redistricting in state Senate District 34. Both state parties invested heavily in the race.
“Tonight we Democrats won this one for the little guy, for the teachers, for the firefighters, for all of us,” Sachs said at a Palm Beach Democratic party at the Renaissance hotel in West Palm Beach, even though a few districts had yet to report.
There will be at least one other newbie from South Florida.
In House District 120, which spans South Dade through the Keys, Republican Holly Raschein had the edge over Democrat Ian Whitney. Neither has held elected office, but Raschein worked for the last two lawmakers to hold the seat.
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.