State Politics

In Cuban-majority House district, Republican rivalry spills into court

Republicans Daniel Perez, left, and Jose Mallea are running to represent House District 116 in the Florida Legislature.

The Republican primary for a Cuban-majority Miami House district has turned into a political slugfest more bitter than the strongest cafecito.

It’s a race marked by allegations of dishonesty and attacks on the candidates’ Cuban ties.

The contenders — insurance attorney Daniel Perez and small-business owner Jose Mallea — have accused each other of dishonesty and invoked their Cuban roots in attack ads against the other, hoping to make allies of the roughly 82,000 Cuban Americans living in House District 116.

As of Friday, a circuit judge in Leon County has a front-row seat to the show, with Mallea requesting Perez’s candidacy be tossed on the grounds that he made a false statement to the state’s Division of Elections.

The men are running to represent a large, Republican-leaning expanse of Miami-Dade County that stretches south from Doral to Kendall. Cubans make up 53 percent of the entire district, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, and the older, more conservative of the bunch are reliable primary voters.

Perez, 30, calls himself “the only Cuban-American in this race,” a jab at Mallea’s mixed heritage, inherited from an Ecuadorian mother and Cuban father. He’s also been critical of Mallea, a former aide to Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, for backing Jeb Bush’s run for president over Rubio.

“If he really cared about Marco Rubio that much, he would have supported him for the presidential run — and he didn’t,” Perez said, noting that Mallea claims his relationship with Rubio remains amicable.

The ever-intensifying race comes weeks after President Donald Trump announced he’d take a harder line on tourism to Cuba and trade with the communist country’s military, a policy shift Rubio helped craft.

Mallea, 40, has used Trump’s policy change to leverage himself as tougher on the communist country than his opponent, publishing engagement photos from Perez’s recent trip to Havana with his fiancee, a trip Perez defended as being primarily about visiting his fiancee’s elderly uncle. Mallea has called it a betrayal to the exile community.

Pictured is a screen grab of Perez’s engagement photos.

“It’s an issue of judgment and character. You’re running to represent a district that’s predominantly elderly Cuban Americans who suffered at the hands of the Castro regime, like so many of our families, and you’ve got to have better judgment than to go to Cuba to take engagement photos,” Mallea said.

The seat is being vacated by Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, who is running for state Senate.

A special primary will be held July 25, followed by a Sept. 26 general election. The Republican victor will face off against newcomer Gabriela Mayaudon, a former Venezuelan legislator making her first foray into state politics.

Mallea is hoping to force Perez to withdraw before the primary.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, Mallea has requested that a Leon County Circuit Court rule Perez ineligible to run, citing a Miami Herald article that found Perez does not currently live at the address he listed when running for office.

The Kendall home where Perez receives his mail, is registered to vote and claims homestead exemption on is undergoing major renovation, and it will be for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the 29-year-old said he is living with his father elsewhere in the district, although he has not disclosed that address to the Miami Herald.

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A photo of Daniel Perez’s home in Kendall, the subject of Jose Mallea’s lawsuit against him. Martin Vassolo The Miami Herald

The Florida Constitution requires legislators to live in the district they represent by Election Day. For Perez, that’d be Sept. 26, if he defeats Mallea in a July 25 primary. Perez has said he does not know if construction will be completed by Sept. 26.

“Daniel Perez’s relationship with the truth is estranged at best,” Mallea said in a statement. “To knowingly identify an uninhabitable building with no roof as his address is the latest in his pattern of lies.”

Mallea has also been accused of not living in the district, although he says he has moved into a rented apartment unit in Doral. He provided the Miami Herald copies of his Florida Power & Light bill and his updated voter registration.

Unlike Mallea, who worked as an aide to Rubio and Bush before opening up a brewery, Perez has no formal political experience, except for his stint as president of the Loyola College of Law’s Student Bar Association from 2011-12.

But after speaking with voters this summer, Perez said he is confident his inexperience will play to his advantage.

“They want new blood, I’ll tell you that. They want someone young, with energy, that knows the community. That’s the most improtant thing to them,” he said.

Mallea, the owner of Biscayne Bay Brewing Company, has emphasized his experience running the small business and helping run campaigns.

“As a small business owner, I think we need to continue to look at regulations at every level that have a negative impact on small business. Regulations that make it difficult to for you to run your business or to grow your business,” he said.

If elected, Mallea said he’d also focus on addressing the state’s “workforce crisis,” in which students graduate high school without the requisite skills needed to land a job. He wants to push apprenticeship and vocational programs, while increasing the prevalence of technology learning in school curriculums.

Perez’s focus will be on supporting law enforcement and reining in property taxes, along with increasing job opportunities for people with mental disabilities.

Both candidates said they believe the Legislature needs to address abuses of the so-called “assignment of benefits” loophole, in which insurance lawyers have filed inflated claims and then sued insurance companies that didn’t honor those claims. Florida’s former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater counts 28,200 cases in 2016 compared to 405 a decade ago, and that fraud has increased property-insurance costs.

But one of the loophole’s biggest beneficiaries, the law firm of state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, has contributed $1,000 to Perez’s campaign. While Mallea has criticized law firms filing these cases, Perez said they are not necessarily to blame, but the abuse is “an issue that needs to be addressed in detail.”

“It’s almost like the foreclosure mills of the mid-2000s,” Mallea said. “All they do is sue and sue and sue, and they have no regard for the fact that this is driving up the cost of insurance for working families. It’s a license to steal in my opinion.”

Because he grew up in the district, went to school there and owns a home there, Perez said he is uniquely qualified to represent it. Ultimately, he says, that’s his best argument.

“I think the most important part where we differ is I know this district and he doesn’t,” he said.