Politics

They've met aliens and dictators and slimed Al Gore: Meet Ros-Lehtinen's would-be heirs

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, with her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, announced last year that she would retire from Congress this year.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, with her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, announced last year that she would retire from Congress this year. cjuste@miamiherald.com

The heir-apparent to the first ever Latina elected to Congress could be someone who’s been on a space ship with aliens.

It could be a singer whose pop star father croons for campaign donors, or a television anchor known for snaring one-on-one sit-downs with dictators. The daughter of the last-ever Dominican Republic dictator had a shot before dropping out. But the self-described political hit man once questioned in the murder of SunCruz Casinos owner Gus Boulis is still in the running.

For the first time in nearly 30 years, someone not named Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will claim the Republican party's nomination for Florida's 27th congressional district. And the field is, in the words of the retiring congresswoman ... "interesting."

"I'm excited," Ros-Lehtinen said in an interview. "We have a real tug-of-war in the Republican primary. Some are more liberal, some are more conservative, some are practically non-existent."

Nine candidates have lined up for the Republican primary. Ros-Lehtinen called the candidates "sexy," but also admitted that she's been a little bored by the lack of action in the campaign.

Republican Brady Bunch.jpg
Clockwise from top left: Elizabeth Adadi, Angie Chirino, Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, Maria Elvira Salazar, Gina Sosa, Maria Peiro, Michael Ohevzion, Bruno Barreiro, Stephen Marks (center)

"Where is the clarion call from the Republican side? They're very la-tee-da," the retiring congresswoman said. "They need somebody to really stand out."

Tough standards. For some of the candidates, it's hard to see what more they could do.

Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former city councilwoman from the west Dade suburb of Doral, has publicly discussed meeting extraterrestrials as a child. In a 2009 interview on AmericaTeve, she explained that three blond, big-bodied beings — two females, one male — visited her when she was 7 years old and have communicated telepathically with her several times in her life. She described “going up” inside the spaceship, which she said was steered by something that looked like quartz rocks.

Angie Chirino, who hopes a Trump-friendly, anti-Castro platform will help win her the party’s nomination, is campaigning with help from her father: Grammy-winning singer Willy Chirino. Last month, the entertainer held a concert fundraiser at the Big Five Club, for which general admission went for $99, a VIP reception with photos went for $150, and private cocktails and preferred seating ran $300. Willy Chirino will perform again June 20 at La Palma Ristorante & Bar along with his daughter, who is also a Latin Grammy-winning musician.

Maria Elvira Salazar, a rookie candidate and veteran journalist only months removed from a gig as a news anchor for Miami-based MEGATV, has captured some attention as a well-known media figure. She previously hosted a political news show called "Maria Elvira Live,” and interviewed both Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet. She’s less used to participating in debates and more familiar with moderating them — having asked questions during the famous clash between high-ranking Cuban government official Ricardo Alarcon and Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas-Canosa.

Ros-Lehtinen encouraged Salazar to run, though she's said she'll support whomever emerges from the primary.

"We do have some great Republican candidates running in my district. One has actually even seen aliens, I'm not kidding, and not the kind that Steve King wants to deport," Ros-Lehtinen said during a humorous March speech, referring to the Iowa Republican lawmaker who has been criticized by members of his own party for being staunchly anti-immigrant.

The closest thing resembling an establishment candidate in the race is Bruno Barreiro, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner and state lawmaker who just resigned from his seat in order to qualify for the ballot (and help his wife campaign to keep his seat in the family). He'd raised $540,000 through April.

But Stephen Marks is also well-known to the Republican party. The former campaign operative worked for both Jeb and George W. Bush when they were in power. He says he's running in memory of his mother and father, with whom he once auditioned for Simon Cowell's “X Factor” — a show they then sued over allegations they were forced to "dance wildly" for hours in the Miami heat.

Marks published a book called "Confessions of a Political Hit Man" about 10 years ago that laid out some of his exploits. A Kirkus book review said the publication included tales of "womanizing," work for felonious former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and an explanation about his disillusionment with a party that during the 1990s was "collapsing from the weight of its own flagrant hypocrisy.” According to ABC News, Marks was once questioned by Fort Lauderdale police after his work for a client trying to buy the SunCruz Casinos chain happened to coincide with the unrelated mob murder of owner Gus Boulis.

Marks told the New York Times in 2008 that he had left the business.

"I’m out," he said. "I want a calmer, more normal life, not looking through countless records just to find that some candidate has a porn-related Web site."

Also on the ballot: Elizabeth Adadi, Michael Ohevzion, Maria Peiro and Gina Sosa.

In a race so many already expect to go to the Democrats, Miami Republicans are shrugging their shoulders at the candidates who've lined up to succeed Ros-Lehtinen, among the grand dames of U.S. politics. Al Cardenas, a prominent Miami attorney and former chairman of the state Republican Party, said he was "surprised by the lack of money so far invested in the race."

Combined, the entire field raised roughly the same amount through April as Democratic frontrunner Donna Shalala, who with the help of a half-million-dollar self-loan pushed $1.1 million into her campaign account in just three weeks.

"My sense is that most folks don't know what to make of it or they haven't woken from the 20-plus years that Ileana has served," he said.

Or, it may be that few in the crowded field are anything close to a household name

"Like they said on "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" — 'Who are these guys?' quipped Ros-Lehtinen. "I don't know half of them."

One Miami Republican strategist said that at a glance the candidates in the race and the money they've raised suggests that local party players and donors have been uninterested. He said a Republican can still win, but described the candidates as "less than perfect."

"I think that a lot of people assumed right off the bat that this seat was going to be lost, which I think shows how we ended up with this field," said the strategist, who asked not to be named in order to speak frankly. "But in politics, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."

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