U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Lopez-Cantera brags about suspending workers for not voting

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera raises his cafecito as he campaigns at inside the Allapattah Community Action Center on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera raises his cafecito as he campaigns at inside the Allapattah Community Action Center on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. cjuste@miamiherald.com

In an election cycle already marked by often outrageous bravado, it’s no surprise the five Republicans running for the U.S. Senate in Florida are out to prove they aren’t going to take guff from anyone.

Carlos Beruff calls politicians worthless in TV commercials. U.S. Rep. David Jolly calls fellow members of Congress “shameful.” And while U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis talks up his days working alongside Navy SEALs, Todd Wilcox recounts being a CIA officer and expert sniper in the Army.

In that environment, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is trying to prove he won’t back down from a fight, either.

At a recent campaign stop in New Port Richey, Lopez-Cantera tried to win over a crowd of 450 Republicans by telling them about his time as Miami-Dade County’s property appraiser when he stood up to a labor union and ended up suspending dozens in 2013. Lopez-Cantera said he was saddled with a labor contract that forced him to allow employees paid time off to go vote.

From the get-go, Lopez-Cantera was miffed by the allowance, which he told the Herald/Times in an interview Tuesday didn’t make sense for employees who could vote early at County Hall.

“I said, early voting is in the lobby — they can’t just stop by early voting on their way up or their way out, or on their way to lunch or something?” he said. “They’re getting paid time off for this?”

Ultimately, 79 took the time off.

After Election Day, Lopez-Cantera took the step — unprecedented, as far as anyone could tell — of requesting elections records to show which workers cast ballots.

“I went and I checked if they had voted,” Lopez-Cantera said in New Port Richey. “I suspended 40 employees because they did not vote.” (Records show it was 41.)

That brought a roar of applause from the Republicans in Pasco County where Lopez-Cantera is trying to make headway in advance of the Aug. 30 primary. He said he frequently mentions the incident during campaign stops all over the state.

As property appraiser, he butted heads with the union more than once.

Lopez-Cantera made headlines when he tried to create a monthly employee birthday celebration. The Costco cakes required union approval and led to an unfair labor practice complaint. So did his employee of the month program, also put in place without the union’s OK.

But the big fight was over employees who took time off to vote — a negotiated, contractual right intended to motivate workers to participate in elections.

Why they did not vote varied, said Andy Madtes, head of the Florida AFL-CIO, who in 2013 represented Miami-Dade Local 199.

“The lines were long, or they planned on voting at another time in the day and they didn’t do it,” he said.

He described himself as “very” surprised Lopez-Cantera would bring up the incident now. “I don’t know how you take any great pleasure in disciplining people,” Madtes said.

Lopez-Cantera said his point to voters is that his track record shows a commitment to protecting taxpayers’ money.

“Part of the frustration that is manifesting itself this cycle is people are tired of politicians who say they’re going to hold the government accountable and talk tough about stuff like that, but then never do anything,” he said. “The reason I talk about it is to show that I don’t just talk about these things. I do them.”

He took aim at two of his rivals, DeSantis and Jolly.

“We’ve been let down before by people who say they’re going to go to D.C. and do something. There’s a couple of people in this race who fall in that category,” he said. “They continue to talk from the stump about everything that’s wrong in Washington, but they fail to say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m in a position and have been in a position of power in D.C. to do something about it, and I’ve been totally ineffective in doing so — so promote me to the Senate so I can be ineffective there.’ ”

As property appraiser, Lopez-Cantera sought to suspend the employees he felt had duped his office. The county attorney told him he could try to fire them, he recalled Tuesday, but he thought that would have gone too far.

In January 2014, the same month Lopez-Cantera was named lieutenant governor, his office handed the workers one-day suspensions. One of them – a supervisor, the highest-ranking employee of the bunch – received a five-day suspension. (The supervisor ultimately forfeited five days of annual leave, worth $1,917.15, according to the property appraiser’s office.)

The union appealed 24 of the 41 punishments. Only two went all the way to a hearing officer, who in both cases upheld the suspensions — after Lopez-Cantera had left County Hall.

The settlements, Lopez-Cantera said Tuesday, were fair.

Madtes, from the union, called the suspensions “a warning as to what this clause of the contract means, so this way, in the future, it doesn’t happen again.”