Teacher-turned-politician James Alexander Harden has a simple idea: He wants his party to start winning.
The 27-year-old teacher is the Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives District 116, which covers South Miami-Dade, including Doral, Kendall, Westchester and Fontainebleau. The area has about 96,000 registered voters, with more registered Republicans than Democrats, and has historically voted Republican.
Harden may be tilting at windmills against Republican incumbent Daniel Anthony Perez, a 31-year-old attorney who has been occupying the seat since last year when he was voted in through a special election.
Republicans hold control of the district, Harden said, because former Democratic candidates haven’t trusted the progressives in the area enough, haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t fund raised enough. But he believes he’s different — even though his fundraising totals suggest otherwise.
“Democrats have not put in the full effort,” Harden said. “They’ve only put their name of the ballot and paid the qualifying fee. It made me think that there has to be a better way.”
So far, Perez has raised more than $209,000, while Harden has raised about $6,000.
Recently, Harden got an endorsement from Flippable, a national organization aiming to switch state seats held by Republicans to Democrats. Harden got $1,000 into his political committee from the group and the realization he “actually has a fighting chance.”
For his part, Perez said he’s vying for re-election to keep working on what he’s already started.
During his first term — a one-year stint that he won in a special election last year after Jose Felix Diaz resigned to run for Florida Senate — the Cuban-American introduced his first policy bill to the legislature by calling himself a “Spanish Brad Pitt.”
Perez focused on improving special education in his district. Among other projects, he sponsored the WOW Center Miami, which is located in Kendall and provides programs for people with developmental disabilities. He also supported the school safety bill, which secured $400 million to Florida schools.
Originally from Westchester, Perez got two bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University — one in political science and another in criminology — and then went on to pursue his law degree at Loyola University. He now works as the in-house legal counsel at Doctors Health Care Plans.
Perez said being a voice for others in Tallahassee has been fulfilling.
“Growing up I always knew representing my community would be a dream,” Perez said. “It’s not something I planned my life around, but it’s an opportunity that presented itself, and I thought I was the right person for the job.”
Perez most cares about decreasing property taxes for the elderly who have been living in their homes for more than 40 years.
He’s also concerned about improving transportation for his constituents. He wants to use the half-penny sales tax Miami-Dade residents pay to the county that’s being used for operational costs toward a mass transit project, which would include expanding the Kendall expressway. Voters approved the tax in a 2002 referendum for that purpose, he said.
“I just want the voters to get what they originally voted for 16 years ago,” said Perez, who referred to himself as the “Spanish Brad Pitt” when he introduced the item in committee this year during his first and only session.
Harden has volunteered in past political campaigns and served in student government while he pursued two bachelor’s degrees — one in political science and another in business management — at Florida International University. He then got his law degree from the University of South Carolina.
He was born in Hollywood and raised in Hialeah, but has been living in Olympia Heights for about 14 years. The Cuban-American teaches U.S. and world history at the Robert Morgan Educational Center.
One of the issues Harden is most passionate about is improving Florida schools by giving teachers raises, lowering the amount of testing, launching more vocational programs and holding charter schools to the same standards as public schools.
He also wants to fight for affordable healthcare, as well as alleviate traffic in Miami-Dade with better roads and other transit options.
If elected, Harden said he wants to examine innovative scientific ideas to combat environmental issues in Florida, including climate change and sea level rise.
An example of that? He said he recently heard there’s a way to turn blue green algae into bio diesel fuel.
“If we’re able to turn this terrible problem into a renewable energy solution then that would be a great leap forward,” Harden said.