In this Florida House race, Republican challenger hopes to become #TheRealJavier

Republican Javier Enriquez (left) is running against the incumbent Democrat Javier Enrique Fernandez (right) in the Florida 114th House of Representatives District.
Republican Javier Enriquez (left) is running against the incumbent Democrat Javier Enrique Fernandez (right) in the Florida 114th House of Representatives District.

Political races often devolve into a blame game of finger-pointing and accusations, but this time around the race for Florida’s 114th House of Representatives District is more of a name game.

And as some voters in the district head to the polls for the fourth time in the last six months to elect their state representative, they may be asking themselves: Will the real Javier please stand up?

In a contest to represent a swing district that stretches from Cutler Bay through portions of Pinecrest, West Miami, South Miami and Coral Gables, newly minted state Rep. Javier Enrique Fernandez faces a challenge from rookie candidate Javier Enriquez. Only five months after beating a well-connected and better-funded opponent in a pricey and contentious special election to represent the district, Fernandez now faces a more amicable challenge from an opponent armed with a unique strength — a name so similar voters might not know one from the other beyond the “D” and “R” placed next to their names on the ballot.

“Is there a benefit to running someone as a Republican with a very similar name? Absolutely,” said Fernandez, who says cross-ballot Republican voters helped push him over the top of Andrew Vargas in a hard-fought May 1 special election. “It will create some brand-name confusion among people who voted for me in the past.”

Fernandez, 43, and Enriquez, 29, are running in a purple district in which three of the last four elections have been decided by fewer than five percentage points. Fernandez kept the seat for Democrats this year after it was vacated in November 2017 by Daisy Baez when she was charged with perjury for falsely claiming she resided inside the district on her voter registration. But he’ll have to win a second contest before participating in his first legislative session — a quirk of a costly state and local decision to hold a special election midway through the year.

Enriquez downplays the similarities between the two candidates’ names, and instead plays up his outsider status.

“I’m not a politician,” said Enriquez, making his first run at office. “I’m not part of a political process. I’m an outsider. I’m one of your neighbors. I know the needs and the issues of the residents of this district. I’ve lived my entire life within [District 114] and I want to make sure South Florida continues to be a place that we enjoy living in.”

And yet, both candidates have taken to using the hashtag #TheRealJavier on social media.

Toeing party lines

Eerie coincidences aside, Enriquez and Fernandez are practicing attorneys and graduates of the University of Miami School of Law. Fernandez, a Berger Singerman attorney, served as chief of staff to former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and stepped away from a high-powered land-use and lobbying gig at Holland & Knight this year to run for office. Enriquez is a partner specializing in family law at the boutique firm Jeffrey & Enriquez.

Given the similarities in their profiles, it’s largely the politics that separates Fernandez and Enriquez as they compete to become cogs in the top-down Florida House of Representatives. Fernandez is especially important for the minority party, as Democratic leaders seek to claw back seats and keep the ones they currently occupy.

“They have opinions that mirror the stances of their respective parties,” said Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science, who moderated a debate between the two candidates at the UM campus on Oct. 8.

The candidates are split over education, with the Democrat, Fernandez, arguing for more money for traditional schools and the Republican, Enriquez, backing school choice. On housing affordability, Fernandez wants to stop the state’s annual raids of housing trust funds to fill the budget, while Enriquez argues for lower taxes and fees.

But gun legislation may be the most prominent divider in the race.

Enriquez supports the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in March following the mass killing of 17 students and teachers at the Parkland school. The bill made it legal for certain school employees to carry firearms on campus.

“When it comes to public safety, we have an obligation to keep our children safe and to make sure our police officers and security are well trained,” said Enriquez, whose father was a police officer in the 1970s. “Law enforcement has to be adequately equipped to make sure what happened doesn’t happen again. My opponent has done nothing but use this as a political football and engage in the worst kind of demagoguery.”

But Fernandez said that although he understands the strong desire from lawmakers to do something after the Parkland shooting, he insists the bill doesn’t go far enough. Fernandez was elected after the conclusion of the legislative session this year, so he didn’t vote on the bill.

“We passed an unfunded Band-Aid, a quarter-measure of what we actually need,” he said. “We passed a huge tax increase as a way to fill the gap for action. We need to deal with assault weapons, which is something that was left out of the bill. We have had a proliferation of conceal and carry permits — 750,000 in 2010, 1.1 million now — and we have very low standards for those. We have to be more robust in the background screening process.”

Fernandez has also been highly critical of the contract that has allowed the statewide group Florida Gun Show to hold an annual weapons expo on the grounds of the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair for the last three decades. Fernandez has vowed to lobby against the renewal of that contract, which is scheduled for January 2019.

Campaign funds

Fernandez has raised about $300,000 in campaign contributions through his personal campaign account and a political committee called Florida Future. Donations include $25,000 from a political committee launched by Gables healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez, $10,000 from the aborted congressional campaign of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell and $10,000 from the political committee of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. Other supporters include Florida Planned Parenthood, the LGBTQ advocacy group SAVE Action and former president Barack Obama.

Enriquez, meanwhile, has raised $93,460, with more than $50,000 of that contributed by the Republican Party of Florida. He has touted big-name endorsements from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, former governor Jeb Bush and Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. He has also been endorsed by Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, who is backing Donna Shalala in the Democratic primary for the 27th Congressional District.

Enriquez publicized a news article last month that said a private poll showed him up in the race, but Fernandez has basically been campaigning for an entire year and has the advantage of being fresh on voters’ minds having just won an election five months ago. His campaign says internal polling shows him comfortably ahead.

Both candidates, meanwhile, are campaigning on making healthcare available to the elderly, housing affordability and education. Fernandez, who was raised by a single mother who taught in the Miami-Dade Public School system, has also emphasized the need to raise teacher salaries.

“I knocked on the door of a teacher, and I saw on her face someone who was very passionate about education but tired of fighting the battle,” said Fernandez. “Her salary couldn’t keep up with inflation. They shouldn’t have to live like that.”

Enriquez has been emphatic on the environment, which he argues is critical to the future growth and success of tourism and agriculture, two of Florida’s largest industries.

“Our natural resources have to be treasured and protected,” Enriquez said. “We have to protect our precious water system and act fast to address the impact of seal level rise. We need to invest greater resources to combat red tide by making sure our water is cleaned properly.”