Penelas protege to carry Democrat hopes for northwest Dade Florida Senate seat

David Perez
David Perez

Democrats couldn’t convince Alex Penelas to run for Florida Senate. They’ve turned instead to a protege of the former mayor.

David Perez, a former Penelas aide and chief spokesman at county hall in the early 2000s, filed quietly last week to run for a northwest Dade state Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Rene Garcia. Perez was recruited by party leaders and boosters after Penelas waffled for months.

The campaign will be a crucial fight in the battle this fall to control the Senate. It pits Perez, a 48-year-old Coral Gables firefighter lieutenant, against Republican state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Diaz has been campaigning for months, and running commercials for weeks. He has already raised $360,000.

For a time, it looked as if Democrats might not find any candidate to run against him, effectively ceding the winnable district in a year the party believes it can reclaim a chamber in the Legislature for the first time in more than 20 years. But party leaders are confident that Perez, a union representative, has the roots and charisma to win in an area where the party has struggled to find candidates.

“I am a product of the public school system — elementary, middle school and high school. I have a 12-year-old son in the public school system and I have served as a PTA president for the last six years,” said Perez, who says he's lived in Hialeah since 1979 after his Cuban-born parents moved to South Florida from New Jersey. “I see what is happening to public school funding and that is an issue for me.”

Diaz Manny
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, right, talks with Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, on the floor of the House during a special session of the Florida legislature Thursday June 8, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Mark Wallheiser AP
That's a jab at Diaz, who helped guide Republicans' education priorities in the House this year and works as a

n administrator at the private, non-profit Doral College, created several years ago to offer dual-enrollment to charter school students. The college is managed by Academica, a large for-profit charter school operator.

Perez said Diaz has "sold out public education for personal profit'" in a press release put out Wednesdsay by the Florida Legislative Democratic Campaign Committee, a campaign arm for Senate Democrats.

But Democrats have attacked Diaz for years over his Academica ties without success, and he has his own deep ties to the area.

Diaz also grew up in the area, worked for years at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High and represented a similar area for six years in Tallahassee as a Hialeah lawmaker. Diaz said Wednesday that he's already put in eight months of hard work on the campaign trail and is happy to keep campaigning.

"We welcome the competition that will give us a chance to continue to communicate to constituents our achievements in improving education, providing for the safety of our student and teachers, and protecting our seniors in this community," he said.

Perez will likely have to run a primary campaign. Muhammad Amin and Julian Santos have filed to run as Democrats. But winning a competitive Florida Senate seat requires millions of dollars, and a substantial campaign.