A liberal novice tries to shake the GOP’s house. Can the conservative heir hold it?

The race for House District 103 between Republican Frank Mingo and Democrat Cindy Polo is one of the 30 in Florida targeted by Forward Majority PAC.
The race for House District 103 between Republican Frank Mingo and Democrat Cindy Polo is one of the 30 in Florida targeted by Forward Majority PAC.

For many an election cycle, the Florida House district that stretches from northern Doral to western Miramar has been a safe Republican seat, anchored by Cuban-American voters who reliably turn out for conservative candidates.

This November would seem no different: House District 103 is an open seat, with term-limited incumbent Manny Diaz Jr. running for the state Senate, but the smoothly functioning GOP alliance that has dominated the district has a well-financed, politically tested designated heir in Frank Mingo. The vice mayor of Miami Lakes, a five-year veteran of the town council, took the party’s nomination without opposition.

But can a political neophyte and stay-at-home mom, running a shoestring campaign on a pointedly liberal platform, upend years of precedent and the GOP’s succession plan?

That’s what Democratic nominee Cindy Polo hopes. She’s banking on a blue wave and what she referred to as “disgust” with politics as usual in the district to sufficiently goose turnout among unaffiliated and Democratic voters, both of whom significantly outnumber GOP registrations in the district, to flip the seat.

The Republican establishment is taking few chances. The state party has pumped $130,000 into Mingo’s campaign, bringing the total he has collected as of mid-September to $194,000, a tidy sum for a state House race. Other significant contributions have come from political action committees backing conservative causes and charter schools, for which Mingo supports expanding public support.

Mingo, who’s 58, said he expects a “highly contested race.” He’s counting on high turnout among GOP loyalists and unaffiliated voters, who he said trend conservative in the district, which includes Hialeah Gardens, a piece of Hialeah and the western half of Miami Lakes. Mingo said his record of support for low taxes and government transparency, including the posting of municipal contracts online and expansion of notices for zoning changes, also plays well in the district.

“We are not taking anything for granted,” he said in an interview. “It’s been a Republican seat. We want to hold it Republican.”

The official GOP backing has put Polo, who is 40, at a decided financial disadvantage. She’s collected under $28,000 in contributions, overwhelmingly from small individual contributions, and had $5,000 on hand as of the Sept. 14 campaign report, compared to nearly $100,000 for Mingo.

Frank Mingo is sworn in after being re-elected to a seat on the Miami Lakes council in November 2014. DONNALYN ANTHONY FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Mingo enjoys the active support of Diaz and political heavyweight Jose Oliva, the GOP designee for Florida House speaker should the party hold its majority as expected. He is also Mingo’s boss. The candidate runs the warehouse and logistics for Miami Lakes-based Oliva Cigars, where Jose Oliva is CEO. Mingo has an experienced campaign consultant in David Custin. They have been running campaign ads in the Miami Herald for weeks and will soon launch a television and radio campaign, Mingo said.

Polo, by contrast, relies on an all-volunteer campaign team that she describes as “a little group of scrappy people,” and “hyper-targeted” letters to voters. Polo, the U.S.-born child of Colombian immigrants, grew up in Hialeah, now lives in Miramar and said she has drawn on friends and her familiarity with the district for the campaign.

The grassroots effort, she said, has tapped into widespread indignation with President Donald Trump and GOP politicians she contends have been unresponsive to the concerns of local residents, in particular the long-running issue of blasting in rock quarries that abut the district in Northwest Miami-Dade County. Critics like Polo, who got her start in civic affairs in anti-blasting efforts, contend that the explosions have caused substantial damage to homes, but that district Republicans have helped shield the mining industry for years.

She argues Mingo was “handpicked” by Diaz and Oliva and is beholden to them, and offers the district only more of the same.

“It’s a package deal. It’s an endless loop of the same politicians,” Polo said. “All these professional politicians in office all these years, and nothing changes. Well, there is your problem.“

Mingo says Polo misconstrues his positions. His alliance with Diaz and Oliva has benefited district residents, helping him corral $1 million from the state for stabilization of drainage canals, for instance. He stresses he’s his own man.

Mingo worked as a real estate agent and moved to Miami Lakes to start and raise his family, he said. He was recruited to work for Oliva’s family cigar company, where he’s been for a decade, and Oliva encouraged him to run for the town council.

“I use it to my advantage, these friendships,” Mingo said. “Oliva is my friend, but he has never interfered with any of my decisions on the council, and I don’t expect he would in the Legislature.”

He also says he and other local GOP elected officials have in fact been responsive on blasting. Mingo backed an effort by Diaz to get the state to pay for a study of quarry blasting that finally paid off after repeated attempts earlier this year, when Gov. Rick Scott did not veto it, as he had previously. Mingo also backed the town’s formation of a committee to follow up on the study results, which suggest seismographs used to measure blasting intensity may not be properly calibrated.

Mingo said he’s felt the blasting in his own home and has seen cracks in neighbors’ houses, though he’s not ready to say the blasts are the cause of damage.

Polo has no doubt they are. She sees herself as part of a nationwide “movement” that has seen large numbers of first-time candidates, in particular women, running for office, and that’s highlighting fresh perspectives on perennial local and national issues — everything from blasting to gun control and women’s and LGBTQ rights.

State House candidate Cindy Polo with her family.

Like others in the current political cycle, Polo said she was inspired to run by a near-to-home crime — the mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Polo, an executive with a master’s degree in business from Florida International University who worked for the Miami Heat and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, had taken time off after having her first child and was exploring rejoining the workforce.

“Then February 14 happened. I just realized there was so much more that I could do,” Polo said. “I like to say that was the moment that got me off the couch.”

Polo, who attended subsequent hearings in Tallahassee, said gun restrictions passed by the Florida Legislature fell well short of what’s needed, including an assault-rifle ban.

“What we got was the bare minimum,” she said. “We applaud that because we’re so used to getting bread crumbs from politicians.”

Mingo, who supported the legislation, which allowed school districts to arm employees while prohibiting bump stocks and raising the legal age for buying a firearm to 21, does not support an assault-rifle ban. Such broad prohibitions “have been shown not to work,” he said.

Mingo and Polo also disagree diametrically on charter schools. Polo says they’re a financial drain on traditional public schools and use public money to pay large salaries to for-profit charter-school executives such as Diaz. Mingo notes that they are public schools, though managed privately, and says they provide an attractive alternative to neighborhood schools.

“You have the right to go to a quality public school or charter school,” he said.

Amid a rapidly shifting political dynamic, Polo said she believes the district, which Hillary Clinton carried by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election, is politically ready for a big change.

“I think things have changed dramatically in just two years,” she said. “People in the district are excited to see someone like me running. There is a lot of momentum building and a lot of positive energy out there.”