Miami Cuban cuisine scion to run for nationally watched congressional seat

Trump talks about tax reforms in Hialeah

President Donald Trump talked about tax reform during a roundtable discussion in Hialeah on Monday, April, 16, 2018.
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President Donald Trump talked about tax reform during a roundtable discussion in Hialeah on Monday, April, 16, 2018.

The face of a well-known Cuban restaurant chain in Miami is running for one the country’s highest profile congressional seats.

Irina Vilariño, co-owner of Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine restaurants, announced Wednesday that she’s launching a campaign for Florida’s 26th congressional district, a bellwether seat representing south Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys. The seat is currently occupied by Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who beat Republican Carlos Curbelo this November in a race that was viewed nationally as a referendum on the Republican Party.

Vilariño, 43, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On her website, she frames her candidacy as a backlash against the leftward movement of the Democratic Party.

“I am deeply concerned about the extreme leftward shift in our political discourse,” said Vilariño, who came to Miami with her family at the age of 4 during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift after her father was released from a Cuban prison. “Young people today are being sold a lie by the liberal media and the Democrat Party leadership who are promising them that they can have everything for nothing. This is the promise of every socialist movement, and it ultimately ends in unfulfilled expectations and tyranny.”

Vilariño is mostly known for her work on behalf of her family’s restaurants. The first Las Vegas restaurant opened in 1984 in Hollywood after her family fled Cuba, and at least a dozen locations are now spread around South Florida. She listed the family’s downtown Doral restaurant as her campaign address.

But Vilariño is hardly a political neophyte.

She was a frequent presence during the 2018 elections with Republican candidates, including Rick Scott. She has been a contributor on FOX News and appeared on CNN for a segment about the views of Republican women on the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation controversy. And she appeared with Trump a year ago when he held a small business roundtable in Hialeah to promote the Republican tax cuts.

In that way, Vilariño — a party loyalist with a sharp-tongued presence on social media — provides an interesting contrast with Curbelo, who frequently broke with Trump and often kept the president at a distance while representing a district that is both majority-Hispanic and left-leaning. After Curbelo lost, Trump mocked him during a press conference and blamed his loss on his reluctance to embrace the president.

Vilariño also represents diversity in a party that has become increasingly represented in Congress by white men and will hit the campaign trail as a small-business owner able to tout Trump’s tax cuts from a dollars-and-cents perspective. Her campaign says “she plans to run on a platform that includes pro-growth policies that help working families, lower taxes and fewer regulations, a strong national defense, and the protection of our quality of life.”

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Co-owner Irina Vilariño at Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine Restaurant in 2010. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Vilariño would be “a rubber stamp for President Trump’s agenda of ripping away protections for Floridians with pre-existing conditions, raising health care costs for the middle class, larger tax giveaways for special interests and big corporations, and more deadly guns on our streets.” But Mucarsel-Powell, 48, said she’s never heard of Vilariño.

“I’m focused on doing everything I can to help the people of my community,” she said. “I can’t think of 2020 right now.”

Vilariño filed her papers to run Tuesday, shortly after the close of the first fundraising quarter of the year. Mucarsel-Powell wouldn’t say Wednesday how much money she raised during the quarter, but the race will likely be one of the most expensive of 2020.