Miami’s pro-Trump ‘master of selfies’ could upend a competitive congressional race

Elizabeth Heng on her support of President Trump

Elizabeth Heng, Republican candidate for Congress, gives reasons for her support of President Trump, and shares thoughts on the Mueller investigation, during an editorial board meeting at the Fresno Bee, Wed. August 29, 2018.
Up Next
Elizabeth Heng, Republican candidate for Congress, gives reasons for her support of President Trump, and shares thoughts on the Mueller investigation, during an editorial board meeting at the Fresno Bee, Wed. August 29, 2018.

At a recent Ron DeSantis campaign event at Miami’s Versailles restaurant, a congressional candidate was on hand waving a “Make America Great Again” hat, shouting at conservative Republicans who had come to get a glimpse of the GOP gubernatorial nominee to vote for her.

But the MAGA-clad candidate for congressional District 27 wasn’t the Republican nominee, Maria Elvira Salazar. It was no-party candidate Mayra Joli.

Joli, Miami’s self-described master of selfies, has been campaigning for nearly a year for retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat. She bypassed the GOP primary for a shot in the general election against Salazar and Democrat Donna Shalala, and doesn’t have much money in her campaign account. Independent campaigns for congressional seats are usually long-shot propositions.

But Joli’s outspoken pro-Trump message on Spanish-language radio and at other candidates’ campaign events could undercut the effort by Republicans to keep Ros-Lehtinen’s seat. The race is already a difficult one for the GOP — Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by more than 19 percentage points in 2016. Republicans are relying on a coalition of conservatives and moderate voters who supported Ros-Lehtinen to stay in their camp come November, and they’re hopeful that Salazar is the right candidate to make the race competitive.

“Basically, the Republicans, the Diaz-Balarts and the Ros-Lehtinens, they are more anti-Trump than even some Democrats and many in the Cuban-American community think they have sold their souls to Washington,” Joli said. “I’m running as an NPA [No Party Affliation] because I understand the only way to help the president is to be with him for America First.”

Nelson Diaz, the head of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, blasted Joli’s candidacy as disingenuous, noting that she donated $500 to Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and that Republicans who vote for her are essentially giving their vote to Shalala.

“If somebody was looking to derail the GOP nominee in this election you would do exactly what she’s doing; Say you’re a Trump supporter, wiggle your away to the front of the room,” Diaz said. “If she cares so much about this president, why would she do something that’s going to damage or hurt the president?”

Diaz said he thinks Joli’s campaign is a “scam,” though he acknowledged he has no evidence that she’s in the race as a ringer candidate to deliberately sabotage the chances of the GOP nominee.

“I think Maria Elvira will win by a good margin because the Dems have nominated someone who is such a bad candidate for this seat, but she [Joli] could make a difference,” Diaz said. “Of course, we are going to combat it. I’ve been on the radio this week telling people that this woman’s a fraud.”

Diaz noted that Joli is not a licensed attorney in the state of Florida despite claiming to be an immigration attorney, and that she went on the radio recently to claim that she spent $20,000 on ads to help Donald Trump.

“That’s illegal but she’s lying,” Diaz said. “She didn’t pay for any ads.”

And for all of Joli’s support of the president, on some issues she disagrees with him.

On immigration, she blasted both parties for “going so much to the extreme” even though Trump is insisting on funding for a border wall that some Republicans do not support. She also wants to decriminalize marijuana and says the environment is a big part of her campaign. But she has also blasted Democrats’ handling of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that they waited “until the last minute” to produce an account of alleged sexual assault against Trump’s nominee.

“Even though [Trump] was not a lifelong Republican, many people voted for him because he represented the vote of the people that I want to represent,” Joli said. “I am a non-party affiliated conservative, a Trump supporter all the way. I’ve talked to the same people who are frustrated with the party.”

Joli said she’s not a ringer candidate because she plans to draw votes away from both Salazar and Shalala, arguing that Shalala’s 31 percentage point share in the Democratic primary is evidence that voters are wary of Shalala’s long-standing ties to the Clintons. Shalala served as President Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

“I have name recognition, I’ve been on TV, radio every which way for the past 12 years,” Joli said, touting the endorsement of former baseball player Sammy Sosa who, like Joli, is a black Dominican.

“This is what happens when both parties are afraid of candidates like me who are strong, don’t back down. I’m professional, I’m a woman, I’m black, there are so many things going on that both parties are nervous about my candidacy.”

As for the donation to Clinton? Joli said she was supporting a friend who was hosting a fundraiser and that she was a Democrat at the time. A few months later, Joli began doing events with Latinas for Trump ahead of the 2016 election.

“I didn’t take a selfie with” Clinton, she said.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty