Diaz-Balart grapples with Trump effect as he runs for reelection in South Florida

Mario Diaz-Balart won’t say if Trump called Haiti and other nations “shitholes”

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart speaks to WPLG Local 10 about President Trump's comments during an immigration meeting at the White House in January 2018, but he would not say if the president called Haiti and other nations "shitholes."
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U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart speaks to WPLG Local 10 about President Trump's comments during an immigration meeting at the White House in January 2018, but he would not say if the president called Haiti and other nations "shitholes."

Florida’s master of backroom deals has 30 years of lawmaking experience, but Donald Trump’s propensity for governing with tweets and insults is making Mario Diaz-Balart’s job tougher.

The 56-year-old Miami Republican prides himself on being the state’s senior member of the powerful House committee tasked with overseeing federal spending and being a crucial voice on immigration issues in Washington. Unlike his South Florida counterparts Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, he doesn’t attract attention for publicly disagreeing with the president and is the only House member from Miami-Dade who voted for Trump in 2016.

But the messaging from the White House is hard to ignore as Diaz-Balart runs for reelection in District 25.

As Diaz-Balart sat down recently with an espresso — not his first caffeinated beverage of the day during hours-long spending talks — the president tweeted, without evidence, that a government-sponsored tally of 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria was a political ploy by Democrats to hurt him.

Diaz-Balart said he hadn’t seen it.

“I literally do not read tweets. I don’t watch the talk shows, I watch newscasts,” Diaz-Balart said. “ If you ask me the last time I listened to or watched a talking-heads show, which unfortunately now television news is pretty much all that except for a couple of newscasts, I don’t. I have a job to do and my job is to get things done.”

Trying to ignore Trump and the constant news he generates gives Diaz-Balart the ability to sidestep criticism of the president, but choosing to keep his mouth shut has opened him up to criticism that he won’t stand up for his mostly Hispanic constituents.

He didn’t respond to most of Trump’s claims on Puerto Rico, except when the president said he was “successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” a statement that is a direct jab at lawmakers like Diaz-Balart, who spent weeks crafting massive relief packages for Puerto Rico and Florida last year.

“The Constitution is pretty clear about that,” Diaz-Balart said, referring to Congress’ power of the purse.

If Diaz-Balart wins reelection in November, he will become the longest-tenured Republican in Congress from Florida — and the state’s most powerful House member if the GOP retains its House majority. His pitch to voters is a classic one for incumbents with clout: he’s the steady hand with experience in Washington since 2003 and the policy chops to best represent a majority Hispanic district with thousands of immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart greets President Donald Trump at Miami International Airport on April 16, 2018. At left is Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández, and at right is Sen. Marco Rubio. Pablo Martínez Monsiváis AP

Diaz-Balart rarely makes cable news appearances, preferring instead to talk with reporters who cover the federal spending process or immigration talks in detail. He refuses to discuss private meetings, including the infamous White House session he attended where Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and African countries as “shitholes.”

“If you look at the folks who get things done, they’re not the ones on MSNBC and Fox 20 times a day,” Diaz-Balart said. “They’re the ones who sit down quietly. In Congress, appropriations have become more difficult. It’s become more difficult because of hyper-partisanship from both sides. And yet we have a constitutional obligation to get those bills done and they’re ugly and they’re not always ideal. But if you look at those bills it’s a smaller and smaller group of us that work on them, who are willing to put partisanship aside, egos aside, who can communicate with Democrats and Republicans and the administration.”

But the traditional path to reelection for a powerful incumbent has been upended by a president who thwarts sensitive negotiations on issues — like finding a solution for so-called Dreamers — by constantly offering mixed messages to members of his own party, lessening the incentive for any Democrat to compromise. Diaz-Balart failed to find enough votes for an immigration compromise earlier this year, even though he rebuked GOP leaders by signing onto a petition that would have forced a series of immigration votes with the blessing of Democrats. He now faces former judge Mary Barzee Flores in the November election, his first serious opponent in a decade.

Diaz-Balart’s family name is synonymous with South Florida politics and U.S.-Cuba relations. His late father, Rafael Diaz-Balart, founded the anti-Fidel Castro group the White Rose, and his brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart served in Congress from 1993 to 2011. His brother Jose Diaz-Balart was the first journalist to work as a daily anchor on two national television networks in English and Spanish.

Politics has been Mario Diaz-Balart’s calling for his entire career since he dropped out of the University of South Florida to campaign for then Miami mayor Xavier Suarez in 1982. He was first elected to the state Legislature six years later at 27, became the youngest state senator in Florida to date at age 31, and has never lost an election during 30 years in office.

Diaz-Balart described the inability to find an immigration solution in Congress as his “biggest disappointment,” though he blamed President Barack Obama and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for quietly killing a bipartisan immigration bill crafted by 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans behind closed doors in 2009.

President George W. Bush “tried to get it done. Obama killed it on two occasions,” Diaz-Balart said. “I was involved in it and Republicans have killed it since I’ve been involved as well.”

Though Diaz-Balart has failed to find an immigration solution — and 690,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. years ago as young children are still stuck in limbo over a year after Trump announced that he would rescind the Dream Act — the backroom deal-making has paid off in other areas.

Diaz-Balart and Sen. Marco Rubio worked together to draft a partial rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy in 2017, and the Cuban-American lawmakers helped Trump take a harder stance on trade and travel to Cuba over the wishes of some of his Cabinet advisers. Rubio’s and Diaz-Balart’s decisions not to criticize the president in public when they disagree with him have helped the pair influence the administration’s approach to Latin America, especially the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Diaz-Balart’s congressional district includes Doral, the town with the highest percentage of Venezuelan-Americans in the entire country, a fact that the president repeated during a recent news conference at the United Nations.

“He’s an experienced legislator, he was very successful in his time in Tallahassee so I think that’s helped him here,” Rubio said, referring to Diaz-Balart’s tenure in the state House and Senate. “He’s obviously been around the process, so he’s now in a position of leadership. I think he’s been highly effective.”

Diaz-Balart brought a packet of accomplishments to a recent interview, like helping the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust get $6 million when they lost funding to other cities in a competitive bidding process; securing $1.1 billion to expedite construction on the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project, and getting the federal government to spend money on transit initiatives like buses around Miami International Airport. He’s the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, one of the 12 lawmakers dubbed “cardinals” in the House because of their power over federal spending.

“I don’t remember a time when I asked him for help that he didn’t help me,” said Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, who is Diaz-Balart’s Democratic counterpart on transportation spending issues. “I know that we’re supposed to be partisan and say they all suck, but on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee, he’s been very helpful.”

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Mary Barzee Flores ran against U.S Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Courtesy Barzee Flores campaign

Diaz-Balart argues that his district and Florida will lose clout on federal spending issues if Barzee Flores is elected.

“You can’t get things done if you are hyper-partisan,” he said.

Diaz-Balart is the most conservative member of Congress from South Florida, and he represents the most conservative Miami-based district, which includes Northwest Dade, portions of Naples and rural areas in south-central Florida. The district voted for Trump in 2016, but by less than two percentage points, after Obama lost the district by more than nine percentage points in 2012. According to multiple election handicappers, Diaz-Balart is the safest bet for reelection among the three GOP controlled districts in Miami-Dade, though Barzee Flores has the resources to mount a serious challenge after Diaz-Balart faced nominal opposition in 2016.

Barzee Flores presents a distinct contrast to Diaz-Balart. She doesn’t have legislative experience and is positioning herself as a candidate who will stand up to Trump in a year where women Democrats are running for Congress at record levels. In 2016, she was blocked from the federal bench by Rubio. She wants to impeach the president, and is hitting Diaz-Balart for being the single largest recipient of National Rifle Association cash among Floridians in Congress since 1998, partially due to his long tenure in office. He also took NRA money after the Parkland shooting, when fellow Florida Republicans like Curbelo and Rep. Brian Mast called for gun control legislation that irked the nation’s largest pro-gun group.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among the 17 students and faculty killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, blasted Diaz-Balart for being the only South Floridian in Congress to accept NRA money after the tragedy.

““Mario Diaz-Balart, after February 14th, after my daughter and 16 others died, you had a choice to make. And you chose to take money from the NRA,” Guttenberg says directly to Diaz-Balart in a recent campaign ad for Barzee Flores. “You chose to take their money... you’re not worthy of service... you need to be fired.”

When asked why he takes NRA money, Diaz-Balart pointed out that the AFL–CIO, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, has endorsed him and contributed money to his campaign along with the American Builders and Contractors Association, a major opponent of organized labor. Diaz-Balart is the only Florida Republican endorsed by the AFL-CIO.

“Is it because I do what they want? No... it is because I listen. I’m honest and straightforward and then I make decisions,” he said. “In the case of the NRA I don’t agree with the NRA on everything. Just like it is fair to record that I’ve taken $1,000 a cycle from the NRA, but let’s contrast that with my opponent.”

He argued that Barzee Flores’ household income comes, in part, from her husband’s work defending international arms and narcotics conspiracies, including clients that have used firearms illegally.

Diaz-Balart also made the point that voters in 2018, regardless of ideological leanings, are drawn to candidates who fit their districts, noting that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Hispanic woman, sprang this year’s biggest political upset over a white male Democratic Party leader in a New York City district that was majority minority. Diaz-Balart is Cuban-American and fluent in Spanish, while Barzee Flores is white and can speak Spanish. The district’s total population is about 75 percent Hispanic and about 50 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic.

Both candidates have been on TV in Spanish and English, Diaz-Balart starting in July and Barzee Flores about three weeks ago, and they each have the resources to wage a serious campaign. He has about $1.5 million to spend as of last month, compared to Barzee Flores’ $570,000.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Broward Democrat who will be the longest-serving member of Congress from Florida once Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen retires in a few months, said Diaz-Balart is committed to the state’s biggest issues like restoring the Everglades and he’s serious about putting in the work, though he said the older Cuban-American voters who powered the campaigns of Republicans for years are now a smaller share of the electorate.

“I don’t recall too many meetings of the Florida delegation where he was not in attendance. I can say that [gubernatorial candidate and former Congressman] Ron DeSantis has not been a faithful member of the delegation,” Hastings said. “I believe without any question [Diaz-Balart] is a serious legislator.”

As Diaz-Balart finishes rattling off his accomplishments in office, an aide mentions that he needs to leave.

He’s having lunch with a Cabinet secretary, another private meeting in a capital currently dominated by the public whims of the commander-in-chief.

“I’m not going to tell you who it is,” Diaz-Balart said. “That’s how I get things done.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049