Florida Politics

Looming departures would reshape powerful Miami-Dade legislative delegation

Then-House speaker Steve Crisafulli, left, conferred with state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz of Miami in April 2015.
Then-House speaker Steve Crisafulli, left, conferred with state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz of Miami in April 2015. AP

Sometime Monday afternoon, when Florida lawmakers return to the Capitol to pass a state budget in legislative overtime, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz will grab a microphone and say goodbye to the House of Representatives, a year ahead of schedule.

The Miami Republican isn’t term-limited until 2018. But he expects to be gone from the House one way or another before next year’s session: Diaz, a lawyer known as Pepi, is a finalist to become U.S. attorney under President Donald Trump.

His appointment seems unlikely, given Diaz’s lack of experience as a prosecutor. But even if he doesn’t get the job, Diaz, who once competed on Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice,” intends to run in a special election for the seat vacated by former Sen. Frank Artiles, who resigned last month after making racist and sexist remarks to two African-American senators at a Tallahassee bar.

Diaz is not the only influential Miami Republican likely on his way out. Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the prominent House budget chief and an early local Trump supporter, interviewed in Washington last month for a position as U.S. ambassador.

In short: Diaz’s farewell speech could mark the beginning of the end of the most powerful House delegation that Miami-Dade County has seen in the GOP-controlled Capitol in recent years.

The tight-knit Republicans on the delegation will leave a lasting legacy in the form of Rep. Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, who is slated to become the next House speaker — Miami-Dade’s first since Marco Rubio concluded his term in 2008. Support for Oliva’s future speakership came from Republicans who like him make up the legislative class of 2012. But veterans from the class of 2010, like Diaz and Trujillo, laid the political groundwork for Oliva’s success.

“With each passing day, Rep. Oliva gets closer to ascending to the throne of the speakership, so I don’t fear for our delegation,” Diaz told the Miami Herald in an interview about his and Trujillo’s looming departures. “But it would definitely be a big game-changer for one session next year.”

Lobbyists for Miami-Dade interests largely credit Diaz, the head of the local delegation and a mediator by nature, with advocating for their budget requests to House GOP leaders — including Trujillo — who have an ideological distaste for funding pet projects. Diaz doesn’t share those misgivings, and the Miami-Dade delegation has a veritable trove of projects in the budget.

“He’s our lord and savior,” said Diana Arteaga, director of government relations for the city of Miami, which snagged $1.1 million for a stormwater master plan to address flooding and infrastructure needs, and take into consideration sea-level rise. “Thank God for public servants like him.”

With a little luck, another Miami Republican could replace Trujillo as appropriations chairman, or Diaz as regulatory affairs chairman. Regulatory Affairs has oversight over a broad range of major policies, including gambling and insurance; Diaz led passage of major condo-reform legislation earlier this month.

Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the House speaker pro tempore not currently in charge of any committees, could fill one of the jobs — but not both. Nuñez said she won’t run for the Senate if Diaz does.

The only other Miami Republican from the 2010 class in leadership is Rep. Michael Bileca, the education committee chairman. Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, the pre-K-12 budget subcommittee chief, was first elected in 2012. So was Rep. Holly Raschein of Key Largo, the natural resources and public lands subcommittee chairwoman whose district includes a portion of South Dade.

“You never want to lose your leaders. You work hard to get your leaders where they are,” said Miami-Dade mega lobbyist Ron Book, who over the decades has seen Miami-Dade lawmakers’ power in Tallahassee ebb and flow. But if Diaz does replace Artiles in the Democratic-leaning District 40 seat, “he’ll come in as a leader,” Book added. “He’ll immediately be a player.”

Diaz said he was proud that he and his other colleagues, who vowed to be different from the notoriously fractious Miami-Dade delegation that preceded them, managed to stick together over the past seven years to, among other things, protect “existential” funding threats to Jackson Memorial Hospital and fix funding for the public school district, which had been hurt for years by delayed property-tax appeals.

“We made Miami-Dade County serious again, and united again,” he said.

Like House Republicans, Miami-Dade Democrats are also poised to lose a member ahead of the 2018 session: Rep. Daisy Baez of Coral Gables has already filed to run for Artiles’ seat. Under state law, both she and Diaz would have to resign to do so. Another Miami Democrat, Rep. Robert Asencio, is also considering a run — in which case, he’d have to resign too.

All the House turnover could ultimately help Miami-Dade Republicans, Trujillo said. If Republicans were to win special elections to replace him and Diaz (whose districts lean Republican) and Baez and Asencio (whose districts are within Republicans’ reach), then the delegation would boast at least a couple of members elected ahead of the rest of their 2018 freshman class. That could give them a leg up to run for leadership roles.

“It creates an opportunity for another speaker from Dade County,” Trujillo said.

The same leadership path could unfold before Diaz in the Senate, should he run for Artiles’ seat and win.

“Pepi is a rock-star legislator for Miami-Dade, and he’s undeniably in line for leadership if he has an extra year in the Senate,” said Nelson Diaz, a lobbyist who chairs the Miami-Dade GOP. “He’s just so highly respected up here. Though it’ll be a huge loss for the House.”