Diaz de la Portilla and Bullard defeated in state Senate upsets

Jose Javier Rodriguez speaks to reporters outside Ball and Chain on Calle Ocho after winning the District 37 state Senate seat, Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
Jose Javier Rodriguez speaks to reporters outside Ball and Chain on Calle Ocho after winning the District 37 state Senate seat, Tuesday, November 8, 2016. jstaletovich@miamiherald.com

The twin forces of redistricting and a surge of enthusiastic new voters worked Tuesday to defeat two of Miami-Dade’s incumbent state senators in three of the most bitterly contested and expensive state Senate races in the state.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, was defeated by Rep. Jose Javier Rodriquez, D-Miami, in the race for District 37, and Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Ridge, lost to Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, in District 40.

The loss of two members of Miami-Dade’s political dynasties will also work to reshape the state Senate, where Republicans will hold a 25-15 majority, having picked up a net of only one seat after a court-ordered redistricting map reshaped the districts and forced all 40 members of the state Senate onto the ballot.

In the third heavily contested Miami-Dade race, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Kendall, held on for a final term in District 39, reshaped to be less Democratic after a court-ordered redistricting. Flores defeated Democratic challenger Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, raising more than any other legislative candidate in the state — $1.3 million. Flores lives in District 40 but agreed to move to avoid a contest with Bullard and only recently has bought a new home.

In the fourth Senate seat, Hialeah Republican Sen. Rene Garcia easily defeated challenger Anabella Grohoski Peralta to be reelected to the District 36 seat. And in District 38, the winner of the safe Democratic seat in Northeast Miami-Dade was state Rep. Daphne Campbell, who fended off a challenge from former state Rep. Phillip Brutus, who ran with no party affiliation.  

The defeats, however, were particularly stinging for Bullard, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, and Diaz de la Portilla, a former county commissioner whose brother Alex Diaz de la Portilla served in the state Senate for eight years.

Diaz de la Portilla raised more than $937,000 for his election effort, nearly four times what Rodriguez raised, and his race was a top priority for Senate Republican leaders. The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee had targeted his race and that of Flores, steering more than $650,000 to protect both incumbents.

Rodriguez won by fewer than 6,000 votes with all but two precincts reporting, a slim victory but a big defeat over one of Miami’s longtime politicians and part of a Cuban-American political dynasty.

While he tried to recast himself as a moderate during the election, Diaz de la Portilla’s reputation as a leading lobbyist at county hall may have hurt him. In 2012, New Times named him best lobbyist, with clients that included Lennar Homes, Walmart and TD Bank.

Rodriguez credited the win to a hard-fought grassroots campaign that included knocking on 159,000 doors.

“Previous races lasted a year and a half. This was eight months in a district three times as big in half the time,” he said.

Rodriguez also says voters validated his efforts to take on special interest groups and entrenched issues, including advocating for solar power. During his campaign, he promised education reform and measures to deal with sea level rise powered by climate change.

“Service, it’s not just what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “It turns out it’s good politics and tonight proves it.”

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the incoming Senate president, blamed Diaz de la Portilla’s defeat on the unpopularity of Donald Trump and surge of voters in that district.

“Donald Trump helped in most parts of the state, but his poor showing in Miami-Dade County hurt Sen. Diaz de la Portilla,” Negron said in an interview. “It really is a compliment that the race was as close as it is.”

Bullard’s defeat also marks the end of a era. Since 1992, he and his parents have represented the district that has included Hendry and Monroe counties and parts of Collier and Miami-Dade counties in the state House or Senate.

In 2012, Dwight Bullard, a high school teacher, replaced his mother, the late Larcenia Bullard, in the state Senate, after her tenure ended because of term limits. She had served eight years in the House, where she was replaced by her husband, former state Rep. Edward Bullard, who served for eight years, and he was replaced by their son, Dwight.

But when the Senate maps were ordered redrawn by the court, Bullard’s new district included his Richmond Heights home but left out large chunks of other communities his family had long served, including Homestead, Naranja and Florida City.

“We’ve come a long way,” Edward Bullard said Tuesday as they awaited the final returns to come in. “When you’ve done the best you can, you can still stand.”

He said the campaign was outspent and the race was tight.

“We gave it our best and we say, ‘Let the chips fall where they may.’ We didn’t goof off, we worked hard and as they say, ‘All good things come to an end,’ ” he said.

Artiles, a boisterous veteran of the Marine Corps, acknowledged that the new district gave him an advantage, with the voting population more than 75 percent Hispanic.

“I’m humbled and I’m proud,” Artiles said. “We walked over 105,000 houses in the race. We worked harder and we worked smarter.”

He also seized on a controversial tour guide Bullard had on a trip he made to Israel and the West Bank, hosted by a civil rights group connected to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The tour guide was affiliated with the anti-Israel BDS movement, a pro-Palestinian group with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Bullard said he was unaware of the connection when he traveled in May and criticized Artiles for distorting the facts. But Artiles and his political committee exploited the connection in campaign ads.

Christopher Norwood, a local campaign strategist, said he didn’t blame Artiles for the “terrorist” attack but blamed the outside campaign consultants who didn’t live in the district.

“We lost the best champion for progressive issues in the Florida Senate because a segment of this community bought into an idea that somehow he’s a terrorist,” Norwood said as R&B music played in the background at the Super Wheels Skating Center in the Kendall where the campaign held its watch party.

Edward Bullard acknowledged that it may be the end of an era for his family.

“In the Florida House there was always a Bullard on the floor or the board,” he said. “It’s been a very good ride.”

With eight precincts left to report, Norwood called the race. Father and son stood off to the side. Edward Bullard kept repeating, “We had a good run.”

Dwight Bullard replied, “That’s life.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas