Eileen Higgins wins Miami-Dade commission seat in upset over Zoraida Barreiro

Eileen Higgins, center, candidate for vacant Miami-Dade County Commission District 5 seat, reacts with campaign communications director Guillermo Perez, left, after learning the first results of the special election during a party at American Social in Brickell on Tuesday, June 19, 2018.
Eileen Higgins, center, candidate for vacant Miami-Dade County Commission District 5 seat, reacts with campaign communications director Guillermo Perez, left, after learning the first results of the special election during a party at American Social in Brickell on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. snavarro@miamiherald.com

Political newcomer Eileen Higgins won a seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission on Tuesday, defeating the better-funded campaign of the former commissioner's wife to scramble the conventional wisdom of who can get elected in a heavily Hispanic district in Miami.

Higgins, a Spanish-speaking Ohio native who adopted the campaign moniker "La Gringa," won by six points over Zoraida Barreiro, the Cuban-born wife of Bruno Barreiro, who resigned to run in a Republican congressional primary. With all 60 precincts reporting, Higgins had 53 percent of the vote, and Barreiro 47 percent.

"Well, we did it," Higgins told a packed crowd of campaign volunteers at the American Social restaurant on the Miami River. "When I got started, it really was about making sure that our neighborhood, our friends, our neighbors, and the rest of the county felt represented. And that we put people first, rather than special interests."

With the Democratic Party deploying money, office holders, candidates and volunteers to boost Higgins early on in the special election, an officially nonpartisan contest became a proxy battle with Republicans.

The GOP used U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami, in robo-calls and mailers. Her husband's Republican congressional campaign also became her top donor, with at least $95,000 in contributions.

District 5 straddles parts of Miami and Miami Beach, with a heavy concentration of active voters in Little Havana and other enclaves where older Cuban-American voters are considered vital to win in low-turnout elections.

Zoraida Barreiro faced Eileen Higgins in a runoff special election to fill the District 5 Miami-Dade commission seat vacated by Bruno Barreiro, Zoraida's husband. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Turnout was nearly 15 percent, meaning voter interest increased after the four-person primary on May 22, when about 13 percent of the district's voters participated. For the runoff between Barreiro and Higgins, 14,023 ballots were cast, according to results posted after 9 p.m. Higgins took 7,449 and Barreiro 6,494. There was a slight discrepancy between ballots reported and the two candidates' vote totals.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, and Hillary Clinton carried District 5 by double digits in 2016. But Republicans tend to turn out in low-profile, local elections.

Bruno Barreiro, the only Miami-Dade commissioner to openly support Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, held the seat for 20 years. He vacated it in March to run in the GOP primary to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, in Florida's District 27.

He resigned earlier than required under state law to run for federal office, triggering a quick special election that was seen as favoring his chosen successor with a well-known last name: Zoraida Barreiro.

The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement Tuesday night linking the Higgins win to national backlash against President Donald Trump. Higgins had used the president and his children in a campaign mailer about "dynasties" that also featured the Barreiros, and she criticized Trump on immigration and other issues.

"Eileen Higgins victory made it very clear that no seat is safe in Florida," the party's statement said. "Today’s victory by Ms. Higgins is further evidence of a blue wave in 2018."

Congressional candidates running for the Democratic nomination in the Florida 27 race knocked on doors for Higgins, and a national group that sends out decorative postcards to Democratic voters in local races launched a mailing campaign for Higgins.

Advocates on both sides saw the District 5 race as a milestone for nonpartisan county contests starting to be fought along partisan lines. Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, said the GOP had no choice but to follow suit after Democrats poured resources into the race. He sees more proxy battles to come.

"I think there's no turning back now," he said. "It's almost like an arms race."

Though running for what would be her first political office, Barreiro enjoyed financial support from Miami-Dade's circuit of lobbyists, developers and vendors who dominate fundraising for incumbents. Tuesday represented the second loss for Barreiro in as many years, after she failed to win a Miami commission seat in 2017.

Higgins drew the underdog title throughout the 10-week sprint to replace Bruno Barreiro. In the May 22 primary, she faced two well-known names in the district: Zoraida Barreiro, along with Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator who used to represent the area in Tallahassee. Higgins pulled off her first upset when she took a narrow first in that contest with 35 percent of the vote to Barreiro's 33 percent. As the top two finishers, they advanced to the June 19 runoff.

Conventional wisdom had Barreiro the favorite, since she was expected to pick up most of Diaz de la Portilla's voters, a fellow Republican Cuban American. But Diaz de la Portilla didn't endorse in the race, and the Higgins ground game appeared to narrow the traditional advantage Republicans enjoy in mail-in balloting, which accounted for six out of every 10 votes cast in the District 5 runoff. While Republicans led Democrats by three points in mail-in ballots and early voting last week, the margin shrank to just a single point by Sunday.

"This is a transformational election," said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster who supported Higgins. "This is an election where you had an unknown defeat two of the titular Cuban dynasties in local politics. and it wasn't even close."

Higgins, 53, is a marketing executive and community activist who helped organize efforts to reduce gun violence in Miami-Dade and participated in citizen panels studying the county budget and charter. A regular rider of county buses, she emphasized transit in the two-month campaign in the special election called after Barreiro's March 31 resignation.

She also sided with the liberal wing of the commission on a string of issues, including mandatory workforce housing requirements for new developments, ending the acceptance of detention requests from federal immigration authorities, and opposing the extension of the 836 expressway southwest into Kendall.

The District 5 results are a blow for Bruno Barreiro, who transferred $95,000 from his congressional campaign to his wife's election effort. That made him his wife's top donor.

By her own admission, Barrerio is not a strong public speaker. She turned in a halting performance during the single televised debate with Higgins. Her online campaigning was minimal. While Higgins posted multiple daily updates from the campaign trail on her Twitter account, @eyesonmyworld, the @ZBarreiroFL feed hasn't been updated since last August.

In remarks at her Election Night event, Barreiro linked the loss in part to her husband's congressional campaign, saying Democrats targeted her to derail him.

“It’s always been about my husband. From Day One," she said from the Little Havana club Ball and Chain. "It was always about District 27, not District 5. Which is a shame, because this is a race about the county. About the issues that we were facing. It should never have been about parties."

The Higgins election is a setback for Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican who endorsed Barreiro and helped her raise money. When Higgins takes her seat after the election is formally certified Friday, she will tip the balance of the 13-member commission to the Democrats, 7 to 5. The one independent, Xavier Suarez, endorsed Higgins.

Voting had been under way for weeks, both through the mail and in early voting. The results revealed Tuesday showed broad strength for Higgins, who nearly tied Barreiro in mail-in ballots, traditionally a segment of voting where Republicans dominate. Higgins narrowly won early voting, but it was enough for her to pull ahead of Barreiro. Then came the Election Day results, which Higgins dominated.

"I hope to make you proud as a commissioner," Higgins said in her victory speech. "And to make fair decisions during this next term."

After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.

Miami Herald staff writers Aaron Leibowitz and Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.