Fire union chief’s candidacy sets up Republican primary in Miami congressional district

Luis Fernandez and Omar Blanco
Luis Fernandez and Omar Blanco

The head of the Miami-Dade County firefighters union is running for Congress in Miami, setting up a contested Republican primary in one of the most competitive districts in the country.

Omar Blanco, president of the Metro-Dade Firefighters Local 1403, filed Monday to run for Florida’s 26th congressional district. Stretching from southwest Miami-Dade down through the Florida Keys, the swing district is currently represented by U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who won her seat in November by defeating Carlos Curbelo.

Republicans hope to flip the seat red again in 2020, and until Monday had only one candidate to get behind: Irina Vilariño, co-owner of Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine. But Blanco’s candidacy — likely to be supported by a firefighters union with a history of campaign volunteerism — creates the potential of a difficult primary battle.

“I’m happy that he’s running,” said Vilariño, who filed in April to run for the seat. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

Vilariño raised $232,000 through the beginning of July and was included on a list of “on the radar” candidates last week by the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Blanco, though, said he doesn’t believe Vilariño — an unapologetic conservative and supporter of President Donald Trump — can beat Mucarsel-Powell in a purple district he says is best represented by someone driven more by progress than ideology.

“When a [911] call comes in, whatever personal differences we have we put them aside and focus on saving lives,” said Blanco, a lieutenant with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Blanco, 47, said he supports Trump, who he said is “trying to move the country in a better direction.” But he said hyper-partisanship is preventing Congress from making progress on important legislation on issues affecting the environment, immigration and the economy.

Blanco said the recent success in Congress by firefighters pushing for better coverage for health issues suffered by the first responders to the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks in New York inspired him to run. Blanco was recently involved in his own political skirmish in Tallahassee, where he fought publicly this year with House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, over a bill that sought to broaden coverage for firefighters who contract several forms of cancer found to be related to their job.

Oliva initially blocked the bill, but agreed under pressure to allow it to progress after Blanco and other firefighter union representatives launched a public relations campaign accusing the speaker of playing politics. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in May.

Blanco said he expects to have the support of local firefighters’ unions, although there have been no formal votes taken. He said he informed the union’s executive board of his decision to run for Congress, but hasn’t yet decided whether to retain his role as president of Local 1403.