Elections

Miami GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen draws Democratic challenger

Scott Fuhrman, shown here in a campaign photograph, plans to launch his candidacy against U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Friday.
Scott Fuhrman, shown here in a campaign photograph, plans to launch his candidacy against U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Friday. COURTESY

In the year of Donald Trump, no Republican may be safe — not even the dean of Miami-Dade County’s congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Friday will draw a Democratic challenger, the first serious candidate to launch a campaign against her in eight years.

Scott Fuhrman, a political newcomer and third-generation fruit-juice bottler, has national Democrats’ backing to try to unseat Ros-Lehtinen, a beloved, socially liberal Republican who has been in Congress since 1989.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s time to try something new,” Fuhrman said Thursday in an interview with the Miami Herald.

Fuhrman, 34, of South Miami, speaks openly about numerous past brushes with the law. He has been registered without political-party affiliation in the past and plans to kick off his “unorthodox” candidacy with a web video Friday. He acknowledged his campaign will be “an uphill battle.”

Ros-Lehtinen, 63, isn’t considered a vulnerable political target, even after Congressional District 27, which stretches from North Bay Village to Cutler Bay, was redrawn to lean slightly Democratic. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes congressional races, lists the seat as “solid” Republican, and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates it “safe” Republican — even though the district voters favored President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 7 percentage points in 2012.

Yet Democrats hope Trump might change the equation, if enough voters who oppose him also punish the rest of the Republicans on the ticket. South Florida already boasts one of the most competitive congressional races in the country: Freshman Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is trying to fend off two Democrats in a Westchester-to-Key West district that leans even more Democratic than Ros-Lehtinen’s. Neither Curbelo nor Ros-Lehtinen, both in Hispanic-majority districts, plans to vote for Trump.

“I’m honored to represent South Florida in Congress and work hard every day to make our community a better place to live,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “We’re blessed to enjoy this democracy that provides voters the opportunity to choose their leaders. Each and every candidate runs on his or her record and ideas to improve our community. I’m looking forward to seeing many South Floridians on the campaign trail.”

Fuhrman pledged to run a positive race centered on issues such as creating jobs, combating sea-level rise and funding Zika-virus prevention. He supports legalizing marijuana — not just for medicinal purposes — and lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Since January, Fuhrman has been president of Florida Bottling Company, the family-run Allapattah company founded by his grandfather 70 years ago (it sells juices under the brand Lakewood Organics). Among the frames hanging on the wall of Fuhrman’s office are his University of Miami law and business degrees — and his Eagle Scout certificate, a distinction he mentions often.

Fuhrman decided to run after his friend, Andrew Korge, son of prominent Democratic fundraiser Chris Korge, flirted with running for Congress (he eventually settled on running for state Senate). Fuhrman is also friends with U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who is running for U.S. Senate. He worked for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, helped fundraise for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012 — and plans to pour $250,000 of his own money into his candidacy.

In his two-minute introductory web video, Fuhrman lays out his biggest potential liability: his rap sheet.

His campaign said — and provided documentation for — four arrests. The most serious took place in 2009 in Boulder, Colorado. Fuhrman, then 27, was charged with driving under the influence and prohibited use of a weapon. He was pulled over for improperly changing lanes and admitted to having two drinks. Police found a loaded handgun on the driver’s side door. Fuhrman pleaded guilty, paid a $1,071 fine and performed 56 hours of community service.

Fuhrman said he was in Colorado picking up a new car for his now-wife that they planned to drive back to Miami. Fearing being alone on the road, he packed one of his guns — he said he has four registered in Florida — but didn’t tell the cop that pulled him over about it. (Fuhrman said he supports heavy gun control, including universal background checks.)

Earlier, as a college student at Florida State University, Fuhrman was arrested three times: in 2001, when he was 19, for possessing alcohol as a minor; in 2002, when he was 20, for disorderly conduct, and in 2004, when he was 21, for holding a cup of beer outside a bar. He pleaded no contest to the open-container violation and served one day in jail.

Fuhrman said he sought “help” — though not at rehab — and no longer drinks alcohol.

The most recent charge against Fuhrman came in 2013, for leaving the scene of an accident on U.S. 1 after crashing into the back of a truck and leaving on foot. The charge was dismissed after Fuhrman’s attorney filed a motion arguing his client wasn’t properly read his Miranda rights.

Fuhrman’s campaign also found he was issued at least 18 traffic tickets from 1998 to 2014, with half of them later dismissed. Among them was a drag-racing citation in 1999 and five speeding tickets, including one for going 83 mph. in a 65 mph. zone in Broward County in 2013. Fuhrman paid a $210 fine. He was also cited for careless driving in 2009 after a Miami Beach crash that caused $4,000 in damage to the other car.

Fuhrman said becoming a dad last year — he and his wife, Lindsay, have a 9-month-old daughter and another on the way — helped him become more responsible and avoid any more brushes with the law. It also motivated him to become a candidate, he said.

“I know I’m going to be attacked. I don’t have a spotless past,” he said. “I made quite a few mistakes in my life. Growing up is not always a straight line.”

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