With experience and baggage, Alex Diaz la Portilla runs for Miami’s District 1 seat

Alex Díaz de la Portilla
Alex Díaz de la Portilla the Miami Herald

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles of candidates for the Miami City Commission District 1. All of the candidates’ profiles will run in print and online at miamiherald.com.

It’s another election season in Miami, and Alex Diaz de la Portilla is playing more defense than offense.

The former state senator and current political consultant is running his fourth campaign in eight years, and he says his opponents are spreading accusations of impropriety because he’s in the lead. He is one of seven candidates running to represent Miami’s District 1, a seat being vacated by Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, who is term-limited.

The elections department has sent vote-by-mail ballots to voters. Election Day is Nov. 5. Early voting in Miami begins Saturday.

He’s lost three previous elections at higher levels of government. In 2012, he lost a run for state House. In 2017, he lost the Republican primary for a Florida Senate district, a seat left open after Frank Artiles resigned. In another special election in 2018, Diaz de la Portilla failed to make the runoff in the race to fill an empty Miami-Dade County commission seat.

Now, vying for the most local level of public office, Diaz de la Portilla said he’s on the path toward victory. He’s been endorsed by the city’s firefighters’ union and pegged as a front-runner in a few polls. Diaz de la Portilla, 55, has the largest war chest with more than $407,000 raised for his campaign account so far, and the most political experience — 16 years in the Florida Legislature, including a decade in the Senate.

“Experience matters,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “This is not an entry-level job.”

District 1 stretches from the cluster of medical buildings surrounding Jackson Memorial Hospital to the Blue Lagoon south of SR 836, with Allapattah and Grapeland Heights in between.

For District 1, Diaz de la Portilla wants to address a mounting housing crisis by creating a housing authority, a new semi-autonomous city agency that can coordinate with the county, state and federal government to steer dollars toward new projects that would meet the community’s needs. He touts connections in Tallahassee that he can tap for city matters and points to a legislative record that includes steering state funding toward the cleanup of the Miami River and a ban on lobbyists serving on a statewide elections commission.

The candidate also said he will bring collegiality and decorum to the City Commission, which has lately become prone to personal attacks and flaring tempers, and discourage a parochial approach to debating city issues. He wants to open a district office so constituents can easily meet him, steer impact fees toward improving the district’s public parks and to demand better community benefit commitments from large-scale developers who ask for entitlements — for example, he said he would’ve pushed for the team behind the upcoming Miami Produce mixed-used development to build a new police substation in the project.

Diaz de la Portilla might have the most experience and money, but he also carries the most baggage.

He was arrested in Boston seven years ago after police said he acted “belligerently” when he and a guest were told to leave after they ignored orders to stop smoking in a hotel room. His ex-wife accused him of stalking after they separated. Public records show that in January, a home he owned with his ex-wife was foreclosed — a “personal matter” stemming from a bad divorce, he says. A mortgage foreclosure sale has been delayed due to a court battle over attorneys’ fees.

In 2001, he was charged with several misdemeanors for alleged campaign-finance violations. Diaz de la Portilla won the case. He argued he was the victim of a politically motivated attack from a lobbyist on a state elections panel who represented a special interest Diaz de la Portilla had voted against in the Legislature.

More recently, Diaz de la Portilla has been accused of aggressive campaign tactics. On Oct. 17 police were called to a low-income senior housing complex when the resident association president, 75-year-old Miriam Rodriguez, complained that Diaz de la Portilla and his campaign workers were intimidating voters as they knocked on doors. Rodriguez called one of Diaz de la Portilla’s opponents, Frank Pichel, before calling police. An incident report stated that Diaz de la Portilla had the right to be in only one of the three towers, and he and his entourage were advised to stay away from the other two.

One voter told the Miami New Times, which first reported the incident, that she was pressured into placing her unopened ballot back into the outgoing mail slot after she told Diaz de la Portilla’s campaign workers she was voting for Pichel. Diaz de la Portilla told the Miami Herald he was getting smeared by someone who’s been entangled in ballot fraud allegations in the past — Rodriguez was the subject of a 2011 county ethics complaint when she was accused of ballot brokering. The matter was closed after the complainant, a former District 1 candidate, stopped contacting investigators.

After Diaz de la Portilla’s 2018 run for the Miami-Dade County commission, the Herald reported that prosecutors were looking into the candidate’s appearances at city-funded paella luncheons sponsored by Commissioner Joe Carollo’s office. The incident spurring questions of whether the commissioner was using his position and public dollars to cater campaign events. Both denied wrongdoing. Carollo said he never invited Diaz de la Portilla to come, and he asked him to stop after a complaint from the manager of a senior center. During that same race, workers paid by Diaz de la Portilla’s campaign discussed tampering with mail ballots in a WhatsApp chat. The chats were detailed in reports by Miami New Times this year.

Diaz de la Portilla said he was not personally involved in the chat that belonged to a vendor he’d paid through his campaign, and suggested they were “joking around.” He dismissed all accusations and past issues as dirty attacks from opponents and special interests who fear his candidacy and feel like they need to bring down the front runner. Echoing the kind of superlative declarations made by President Donald Trump, he said his personal finances were “the best of any candidate.”

“All these are made-up controversies,” he said. “They can smear me all they want.”

He emphasized that he wants the campaign to focus on issues that matter to District 1 residents’ daily lives. He said there are too many public parking spots where drivers have to pay using a smartphone app, which might not be simple for the district’s older residents and might hurt small businesses that offer affordable services and products. Sipping orange juice at a small Cuban eatery on Northwest 17th Avenue on a recent morning, he gestured to the cheap specials on the wall while questioning why customers would pay such a large percentage of the bill just to park.

“They’re not going to pay $3 for parking,” he said.

Diaz de la Portilla disapproves of the process that led to the negotiation for a 99-year lease to redevelop Melreese golf course into a mall and soccer stadium complex, a rushed process that led to a referendum where voters authorized the city to work out a deal with one entity instead of soliciting multiple bids. Nevertheless, he said, the city should negotiate a good deal that benefits residents, and if that’s not possible, he would not support the project.

He also wants to change regulations and force lobbyists to disclose when they own a stake in the business they are lobbying for. Currently, disclosures are required to list any individuals or entities that own 5% or more of the companies being represented — though a recent ethics inquiry found that provision was rarely enforced.

Diaz de la Portilla is the brother of Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a former county commissioner and state senator. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is now a land use and zoning attorney who sometimes lobbies Miami commissioners. Alex Diaz de la Portilla said he would recuse himself from any matters on which his brother is lobbying.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.