Miami Democrats may have won two victories by capturing one County Commission seat

Bruno Barreiro, seen here at a Miami Beach senior center with his wife, Zoraida Barreiro, will have to run for Congress without the power of incumbency now that he's out as a Miami-Dade commissioner and his wife lost a bid to claim his seat.
Bruno Barreiro, seen here at a Miami Beach senior center with his wife, Zoraida Barreiro, will have to run for Congress without the power of incumbency now that he's out as a Miami-Dade commissioner and his wife lost a bid to claim his seat. dhanks@miamiherald.com

Bruno Barreiro wouldn’t admit it Tuesday night, but on some level he must wish he could take it all back.

The unexpected resignation. The election tailor-made to help his wife succeed him on the Miami-Dade County Commission. The money he took from his congressional campaign to fund Zoraida Barreiro’s failed election bid.

It was a big play. And it failed in a big way.

Instead of solidifying his family’s political holdings for the next decade, Barreiro may have sealed their fate this spring when he decided to forgo his final seven months on the County Commission and resign suddenly in the hope Zoraida Barreiro would win a campaign to succeed him. She came in second during a primary election in May and was trounced Tuesday night in a runoff by Eileen Higgins, a previously little-known candidate who found a strong base in the Democratic Party.

The results of the election — in which voters from a district that includes Little Havana chose a candidate known as "La Gringa" over a Cuban-American from a political family — sent shock waves through Miami-Dade political circles. And they cast serious doubt on whether Barreiro can retain his congressional campaign donors and carry votes in a competitive election as word spread about campaign infighting and outdated strategies.

"The Barreiros made technical mistakes all along the way," said Juan-Carlos Planas, an election law attorney who supported Zoraida Barreiro. "They weren't able to adapt from the primary to the runoff. What makes you think they'll be able to do that for his campaign?"

On the campaign trail, the Barreiros explicitly linked the two elections: Barreiro the congressional candidate took at least $95,000 out of his campaign fund to spend on his wife’s county campaign, and Barreiro the commission candidate repeatedly said that Democrats backing Higgins were really targeting her husband.

“It’s always been about my husband. From Day One,” Zoraida Barreiro told the Miami Herald Tuesday. “It was always about [Congressional] District 27, not [County] District 5.”

Barreiro himself was optimistic Tuesday night, even though his wife's loss was her second in seven months after she came in third in a City of Miami race last year that largely overlapped with his district. He said he'll continue campaigning.

“It is what it is and we will continue to work," he said Tuesday night.

Barreiro set this scenario in motion in March when, prompted by Florida’s newly amended resign-to-run law, he resigned effective immediately. The law, which changed to force local elected officials to resign in order to make the ballot for federal office, allowed him to make the resignation effective in January. But Barreiro stepped down right away in order to set up an abbreviated, low-turnout special election that would favor the wife of the longtime commissioner.

Now, on what is effectively his first-ever losing streak as a politician, Barreiro is out of the seat that made him a powerful figure in Miami politics over the last 20 years (and that paid for rental space in his family’s Little Havana office building). And he is looking at a costly congressional campaign against eight other candidates. Meanwhile, Democrats in the race to replace Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were already beginning to talk about former television news anchor Maria Elvira Salazar as the inevitable Republican nominee even before Tuesday’s election.

Planas, who has taken work with the Salazar campaign, said he thinks Barreiro's first mistake was his decision to step down immediately. Michael Hernández, a former chief spokesman for county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said that after his wife's loss, Barreiro "has the narrowest of paths to the nomination."

"It is a crowded field," said Hernández, now a political consultant working with the campaign of Democratic front-runner Donna Shalala. "Candidates will be competing for attention and campaign dollars and the one weapon he had — his name — was severely weakened by Zoraida's loss."

Insiders familiar with the Barreiros' thinking said Wednesday that the final weeks of the county commission campaign were dominated by infighting and confusion as consultants grappled over control. They confirmed that one strategist, Emiliano Antunez, quit outright two weeks ago amid frustration over what two sources described as a campaign "stuck in the '90s."

Further damaging his hopes, Barreiro spent about a quarter of his cash on hand through April in donations to his wife’s campaign. He still had more cash on hand than Salazar’s $287,000 to start the second quarter of the year, but she raised that amount in a shorter period than Barreiro.

Fernando Diez, a campaign strategist not involved in the congressional race, said he thinks Barreiro will have a hard time courting donors after his wife's loss Tuesday night.

"His best play was to double-down on Zoraida’s candidacy. I think that was the right call," said Diez, guessing that his wife's election could have helped Barreiro raise three or four times the money that he invested in her campaign. "That’s no longer going to be the case. Who’s going to give money to him now?"

At Ball and Chain Tuesday night, Barreiro said he can still win in August, as Republican voters in the district of 750,000 people turn out to choose an heir to longtime Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. “Money isn’t everything,” he said. "Money’s a good thing to get your message out, but it’s not everything.”

Barreiro can at least take some solace from his strongest supporters, who remain enthusiastic. After his wife gave her concession speech Tuesday night, the crowd graced them with a chant: “Bruno for Congress.”