Career Democrat or a reinvented centrist: Who will win Florida Senate District 40?

Annette Taddeo handily retained her Florida Senate District 40 seat, edging out Republican challenger Mariana “Marili” Cancio in the midterm election on Nov. 6, 2018.
Annette Taddeo handily retained her Florida Senate District 40 seat, edging out Republican challenger Mariana “Marili” Cancio in the midterm election on Nov. 6, 2018. Miami Herald File

Annette Taddeo knows all about Florida Democrats’ talk about a “blue wave” in November. You might say she began the conversation

The Colombian-American businesswoman perennially lost elections until last year, when a Republican senator’s meltdown at the state Capitol combined with Donald Trump’s acrid politics to free up a crucial west Dade Senate seat and then drag down a heavily favored Republican opponent in a special election. After four failed tries, Taddeo rode the early swells of a Democratic surge to her first victory, kicking off a series of wins for the state’s minority party in competitive special elections.

But if Democrats are to take back Florida’s upper chamber for the first time in more than two decades, they’ll have to defend seats like Taddeo’s. And after finally breaking her losing streak last year, Taddeo hopes the tides that pushed her into office will remain strong enough to help keep her there as she faces a new Republican opponent with some familiar challenges.

Following her 2017 upset of Jose Felix Diaz, a well-regarded state representative and former contestant on Trump’s “Apprentice” TV show, Taddeo faces a reelection challenge from Mariana “Marili” Cancio. An attorney and frequent conservative commentator on Spanish-language media outlets, Cancio is an established opponent recruited and funded by Senate Republicans.

Marili Cancio

But rather than playing up her conservative roots, Cancio is courting voters with talk of bipartisan action and attacking Taddeo — a 2014 running mate for failed gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist — as an ultra-partisan player. In a race likely to hinge on the whims of independent voters, she’s hit the campaign trail blasting away at Taddeo’s vote against landmark gun-control legislation that passed following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“We have to be able to carry the conversation for the betterment of the community,” Cancio, 53, told the Miami Herald. “So many voters registered no party in my district because they’re tired of party politics.”

In promoting her centrist campaign, Cancio, who recently moved into a Dadeland condo from her home outside the district in Key Biscayne, points to her 7-year tenure as a trustee for Miami Dade College (where she was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott), her time in the Obama White House discussing policies on the economy and Cuba, and her advocacy for the Miami Dade Parents of Murdered Kids, a support group for parents whose children were victims of gun violence. She went on television early, talking up bipartisan action in campaign commercials.

Meanwhile, she says Taddeo’s vote against the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act — a bipartisan omnibus bill that included gun control measures, money for school security and mental health assistance, and provisions to allow the arming of school staff — was a vote for the National Rifle Association and against the 17 families who lost a loved one during the Feb. 14 school shooting and lobbied for the legislation.

“It’s not a perfect law but there’s no such thing as perfection and I think you have to find common ground to move ahead,” Cancio said.

The legislation has been celebrated by gun-control groups and led Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg gun-safety organization, to give $200,000 recently to a political committee supporting Senate Republican candidates. But Cancio’s claim to voters that Taddeo, 51, voted against the bill and in line with the gun lobby is misleading.

Though the NRA opposed the legislation overall, Taddeo — like most Senate Democrats — says her vote was cast in protest of NRA-backed language that allowed school districts to place guns in the hands of educators.

She counters that it’s Cancio who backs the NRA and supports the arming of school staff.

“Don’t tell me that this is a good bill,” said Taddeo, who owns a translation services company called LanguageSpeak. “It had a poison pill in it and absolutely I will vote against it.”

Taddeo also charges that Cancio is trying to hide her conservative record by shielding social media posts from voters in which she defended Trump and used caustic language. Not unlike Diaz — who was criticized during his 2017 campaign against Taddeo for deleting a selfie he took with Trump — Cancio recently made her eight-year-old Twitter account private and launched a second, public account.

Cancio granted a Miami Herald reporter access to her private account, which includes several mentions of Trump, #MAGA and #alllivesmatter. Cancio, who opened a new Twitter account when she got in the race, says she protected her first account because “I was getting a lot of comments and tweets on those old accounts.”

Both biographies on Twitter say she’s a candidate for State Senate District 40, but only her private account notes that she’s a Republican candidate. And only one account includes her tweet in 2016, posted the day after the mass shooting at an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub, in which Cancio said she believes many men who are serial womanizers and beat their wives harbor homosexual tendencies.

Cancio said she was “venting” amid news that shooter Omar Mateen might have been a self-loathing gay man, and while sheltering a victim of domestic violence. She says she wasn’t claiming homosexuality causes domestic violence or abuse — although her tweet was condemned by the past president of the now-defunct Miami Log Cabin Republicans.

Lyann Goudie, a Tampa lawyer who is an open lesbian, vouched for Cancio, her second cousin. “I can pick up the anti-gay vibe and she just doesn’t have it,” she said. “If I thought that was a homophobic statement, I would’ve told her that.”

“I think it’s different running for office when you’re a candidate versus someone when you’re just out there tweeting different issues,” said Cancio, whose only previous campaign was a failed bid for Congress in 2010.

Cancio was also reluctant to say who she’s supporting for governor (it’s Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, whose ideas on economic policies she says align with her own).

Taddeo, meanwhile, said that during her first and only legislative session, she consciously tried to co-sponsor bills with Republican lawmakers in order to reach across the aisle. But she flaunts her on stage appearances with Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum. And her Twitter account, which is public, is unapologetically liberal.

“I’ve been in the public limelight for a long time,” said Taddeo, who rents a home near Tropical Park. “By now, people know me, know where I stand, even those who disagree with me on certain issues respect the fact that I don’t hide who I am.”

“If I had any advice for her, I’d say be yourself,” she added. “I learned that early on and I hope she learns that one day.”

Races for the Florida Senate, in which Democrats currently hold 16 seats in the 40-seat chamber, typically cost millions of dollars to run.

So far, Taddeo is out-raising Cancio, with $900,000 between her campaign account and political committee compared to Cancio and her committee’s $400,000. But competitive campaigns typically draw significant dollars from outside Democratic and Republican boosters — even if the candidates themselves try to play it down the middle.

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.