A 30-year-old Democrat is challenging a Republican County Commission veteran

Maryin Vargas, left, is challenging Rebeca Sosa, the incumbent, in Miami-Dade County Commission District 6.
Maryin Vargas, left, is challenging Rebeca Sosa, the incumbent, in Miami-Dade County Commission District 6.

In the race for Miami-Dade County Commission in District 6, Maryin Vargas is not intimidated by facing a veteran officeholder. Rebeca Sosa has held the seat since 2001 and has raised more than $300,000 in donations this election cycle. Vargas, who decided to run just weeks before the filing deadline in June, had raised less than $15,000 as of Aug. 10.

But the banker and advocate for the rights of condo owners says she was fed up with the status quo in the county, and she decided to take a shot.

“I’ve always been a community advocate,” Vargas told the Miami Herald Editorial Board during her candidate interview on Thursday. “We have to fight.”

Vargas will be a heavy underdog in the Aug. 28 election against Sosa, a well-respected commissioner whose next four-year term would be her last under county rules adopted in 2012. Talk of Sosa’s possible aspirations for higher office has circulated for years, but the longtime educator and former West Miami mayor has stayed put on the commission, serving as its first Hispanic chairwoman in 2013-14.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who is running for reelection in 2018. MARICE COHN BAND Miami Herald File, 2013

Sosa’s district is a diverse jumble that includes parts of Hialeah, Miami Springs, the city of Miami, West Miami and Coral Gables.

Sosa, 62, is a Republican whom U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has described as his “political godmother” from his time as a city commissioner in West Miami.

“The things that we have been able to do have been because of the community,” Sosa told the Herald Editorial Board earlier this week. “I am just elected to do what they want.”

Sosa has won the respect of many constituents by staying engaged on local issues. Eric Borrazas, the president of community group Neighbors of Schenley Park in the area west of Coral Gables, said Sosa is “extremely well-loved” in the neighborhood. When residents complained about traffic near Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, Borrazas said, Sosa went door to door to hear about it, commissioned a traffic study, and had speed bumps and stop signs installed.

“She is a tremendous problem solver,” Borrazas, 49, told the Herald. “It comes from the goodness of her heart.”

Vargas, 30, is a novice. The city of Miami resident is seeking political office for the first time. She hopes to harness the left-leaning energy that helped spur the surprise victory of Democrat Eileen Higgins in June. Higgins won the vacant District 5 commission seat by defeating Republican Zoraida Barreiro, the wife of Bruno Barreiro, who resigned that commission seat to run for Congress.

Higgins started as an afterthought in that race. In April, a Miami Herald headline described it as “dynasty vs. dynasty,” in reference to Republicans Barreiro and Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator.

Juan Cuba, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, said residents are tired of a “lack of urgency” on the commission.

“We support Democrats like Maryin that want to serve our community and are willing to take on status quo Republicans like Sosa,” Cuba told the Herald.

Vargas described herself as an “activist since high school,” but her first appearance on the political scene came last year, when she organized a campaign for tougher protections for condo owners across the state.

Maryin Vargas attends a protest in Kendall for the reform of state laws for condominium associations in March 2017. Vargas, 30, is challenging Rebeca Sosa for the District 6 County Commission seat in the Aug. 28 election. MATIAS J. OCNER Miami Herald File

Her work with Reform Florida led to the Florida Legislature passing a new law that requires better record-keeping, stricter financial reporting rules and other accountability measures for condo associations.

“Special interests are the only ones who have a voice in Florida,” Vargas told the Herald last April. “The lawyers know that without records, owners can’t fight their cases and find out if a crime is being committed in their condominiums.”

Cuba praised Vargas’ “sense of urgency” in pushing for the legislation.

“That’s what this commission has been missing for a long time,” he said.

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Sosa’s track record includes many years as a proponent of addressing climate change. She touts her record on environmental issues, including the creation of a Sea Level Rise Task Force during her time as commission chairwoman.

Sosa presented a list of 64 of her environmental initiatives at a meeting with the Herald Editorial Board, including efforts to protect the Everglades and a resolution requiring all county infrastructure projects to take sea level rise into account.

“Dealing with the sea level rise, for me, it’s of extreme importance,” Sosa said. “We need to continue advocating for the environmental agenda.”

Sosa highlighted other resolutions requiring county contractors to comply with equal pay laws, directing the mayor to identify single-occupancy restrooms as gender-neutral, and requiring staff at Miami-Dade parks to receive anti-bullying training.

She also pointed to the commission’s recent approval of the county’s purchase of Ludlam Trail, a discontinued railroad corridor that could become a greenway running several miles from Dadeland to near the Miami International Airport. Sosa said the long-discussed project would be paid for with a combination of state and county funds.

“The community decided what they want to see and it’s becoming a reality,” Sosa said.

Vargas said she differs from Sosa on several key policy points. She criticized Sosa’s support for county compliance with federal immigration detainers, saying she would seek to overturn the 2017 vote that has sparked controversy. In July, two undocumented immigrants sued the county after they were turned in to ICE for driving without valid licenses.

“It really bothered me when they did that,” Vargas said of the vote. “To me, it was inhumane. It was a political ploy and it should have never happened, especially in Miami.”

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Vargas also seeks to distance herself from Sosa by stressing the importance of campaign finance reform. Her campaign has declined to take donations from developers, lobbyists and county contractors.

“I decided to run on my own,” Vargas said. “It should be mainly the residents that say, this person, I believe in them, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and I’m going to support them.”

Vargas said she recently resigned her position as a treasury analyst at Regions bank because she had clients with connections to county business.

“It wouldn’t have been kosher,” she said.

Sosa and Vargas also differ in their reactions to the proposed David Beckham soccer stadium and commercial development at Melreese Country Club, which is headed to the November ballot in the city of Miami and falls within the District 6 boundaries.

Sosa said she would wait for the vote before getting involved.

“I really want to respect the boundaries,” she said. “The first thing that I will do [after the vote] is sit with all the neighbors that are going to be affected. It’s not that I am against development, but in the right way.”

Vargas, on the other hand, spoke at a Miami city commission meeting in opposition to the city’s handling of the deal. She told the Herald the public has been “bullied into it” and called the process “rushed.”

“That’s not how you do business,” Vargas said.

Cuba, the county Democratic party chair, also criticized Sosa’s support for the maligned Marlins stadium deal in 2009. This year, Sosa voted in favor of zoning changes to build the country’s largest mall off the Florida Turnpike, but she says she has learned from the Marlins deal.

“I learn from past mistakes,” Sosa said in May. “All I want is to make sure no public funds are used.”

Sosa is running her first campaign without her husband, Armando, who died last May after an extended illness.

“This election is hard for me,” she said.