“I am the domino,” proclaims a guayabera-clad Vance Aloupis, a Maine native, as he flashed a tile from the popular game in a Spanish-language advertisement his campaign heralded as a success.
“I am very proud of my heritage,” says Rhonda Rebman-Lopez, an Alabama native who this summer cut her hyphenated last name in half to assume her Cuban husband’s last name. Her maiden name will no longer appear on the ballot.
“I am offended by it,” concluded Jose Fernandez, the only Cuban-born candidate running in the Republican primary for Miami House in District 115, an inland strip of central Miami-Dade County in which 38 percent of the population is Cuban and more than two-third are Hispanic.
In the waning days of the Republican primary for the seat, ethnicity politics have dominated the campaign trail as four candidates jostle to succeed term-limited state Rep. Michael Bileca, the powerful chairman of the House’s Education Committee. Bileca, born in Miami to Eastern European parents, isn’t Hispanic. But the race to replace him has threatened to devolve into a contest over who is more Hispanic.
After responding to Aloupis’ advertisement with one of his own, Fernandez on Tuesday evening accused his two non-Hispanic white competitors of “pandering” to Cuban voters and “pretending to be something they are clearly not,” firing the first salvo in what had been a relatively amicable four-way race in a series of strongly worded statements to the Miami Herald.
The winner of the Aug. 28 GOP primary — among Aloupis, Lopez, Fernandez and Carlos Daniel Gobel — will face off against the winner of the Democratic primary. The two candidates in that race are Jeffrey Solomon and James Linwood Schulman.
“A cornerstone of my campaign has been the fact that I have been a member of this community for decades,” Fernandez told the Herald. “I don’t think it is appropriate for anyone to pander to our neighbors for votes pretending to be something they are clearly not. As a matter of fact, as a member of this community, I am offended by it.”
Fernandez — a 41-year-old personal injury attorney who last week condemned “dirty politics” when he caught someone stealing his campaign signs — was roundly criticized by his opponents for his surprise broadside two weeks before the primary.
Aloupis and Lopez both noted that despite Fernandez’s claims of deep ties to the community, he has lived in the district he’s trying to represent only since April. He counters by pointing out the Miami offices of his national law firm are located in Westchester.
“Jose Fernandez’s accusations of Vance Aloupis — a 26-year resident of South Florida — pandering to neighbors for votes is just one more example of ignorance and idiocy that has now reached unfathomable heights. Especially coming from somebody who moved into the District just a few months ago,” Alex Miranda, a consultant to Aloupis’ campaign, said in a statement released Wednesday to the Herald. “If playing dominoes in Miami is pandering, I suggest Fernandez tell President [Donald] Trump to return the guayabera he was given as a gift at a campaign event in Little Havana by now OAS Ambassador Carlos Trujillo.”
The first proverbial black-and-white tile came tumbling down in July, when Aloupis, the 34-year-old CEO of The Children’s Movement Florida, released a campaign ad that featured two Hispanic men discussing his candidacy — and his last name — over a game of dominoes.
“I like everything I’m hearing, but I’m not sure about his name,” one man says to the other. “Me neither,” he responds.
Aloupis, wearing a traditional Cuban shirt, then enters the frame and feigns outrage (Oye, estoy sentado aqui!) and motions to lay down a double-nine domino, telling the men: “Yo soy la ficha.”
Although the statement literally means “I am the domino,” the Aloupis campaign said he meant for it to mean “I am the missing piece.”
Although dominoes are a popular Cuban pastime, Aloupis — whose wife is from Brazil — said what first comes to mind when he thinks of the game is his father-in-law teaching his daughter how to play.
After leaving Maine in 1992 as an 8-year-old to come to South Florida, Aloupis said he has come to consider the area home and its residents his family.
“I’m reminded that this community is the definition of American pluralism,” he said in a recent interview. “The community that you and I are living in today is the same community that most Americans will be living in in 20, 30, 40 years.”
Fernandez, who left Cuba as a 3-year-old in 1980, responded to Aloupis’ advertisement by implying Aloupis is not a true South Floridian.
“Don’t be confused,” he warned in a Spanish-language ad of his own. “Putting on a guayabera and shuffling dominoes doesn’t make you from Miami.”
Although Aloupis is not from Miami, and does not claim to be, he created a teaching curriculum for juvenile detention centers across South Florida and its homeless community as a board member for the Miami Coalition for the Homeless.
Still seeing red, Fernandez then turned his sights on Rhonda Lopez, a Miami transplant who left her home state of Alabama in 1992.
After qualifying for the race via petition under her hyphenated last name Rhonda Rebman-Lopez — which appears on her voter registration, driver’s license and early campaign merchandise and signs — she asked Florida’s Division of Elections in June whether it was legal for her to shorten it on the ballot.
The DOE told Lopez she was legally able to use any part of her legal name to run for office.
“I am proud that I am an American, I am proud that i was born in Alabama,” she told the Herald in a recent interview. “Rhonda Lopez is my name. That’s what people call me.”
Fernandez said it was a good marketing ploy, as removing Rebman makes Lopez seem Hispanic.
“Another example of pandering,” Fernandez said of the name change in a statement to the Herald. “Only someone truly desperate to win political office would change their name at the last minute to attempt to deceive the voters. I am shocked by this, but in this process I have learned that people without scruples will do anything to win elected office.”
Lopez, president of PECO International Electric, called the attacks on her name change “trivial” and a way for Fernandez to distract voters.
“As the proud wife to Jorge Lopez, a Veteran who bravely served in our nation’s armed forces, I am appalled but not surprised by Mr. Fernandez’[s] attack on my good name,” Lopez said in a statement to the Herald on Wednesday. “It is obvious that my opponent, who moved into this district just a few months ago for political expediency, would resort to such baseless distractions, since he has no plans on improving the lives of the families in our community.”
The fourth candidate in the primary, Carlos Daniel Gobel, traces his roots back to Cuba through his grandparents on both his maternal and paternal sides.
Gobel, a commercial real estate appraiser and youth sports coach, largely avoided the fire fight.
The Florida International University graduate said his platform focuses on home affordability, revamping the homestead exemption into a percentage-based system and solving the algae bloom crisis along Florida’s coast. He has been endorsed by the Kendall Federation of Homeowners, and has raised $15,556 as of the most recent filing period.
“I’m not here to say I’m more Cuban than the next guy, or more American,” he said. “The truth is I love my community.”
Aloupis, a former University of Miami student body president and graduate of the law school at UM, has received Bileca’s endorsement. His platform focuses on early childhood development, strengthening Florida’s education system and raising teacher pay. He has raised $287,525 as of the most recent filing period.
Fernandez, who has raised $113,200 and loaned himself $280,000, is a graduate of Florida State University and St. Thomas University Law School. He lists among his policy priorities improving traffic flow throughout the district, cutting business regulations to open the way up for job growth and curbing insurance-rate increases through reform.
Lopez, a graduate of the University of Alabama, has raised $74,245 and loaned herself $199,125 as of the most recent filing period.
Her platform includes making schools safer against potential threats, reducing traffic gridlock and making sure every animal shelter in Florida is “kill-free.” She has received the endorsement of the Florida Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Benevolent Association of Miami-Dade County and the United Faculty of Miami Dade College.
“You know why I got that? Because they believe in me, they believe in this girl from Alabama that has lived here for three decades,” Lopez told the Herald in an interview. “They don’t want to talk about my name and they don’t want to talk about campaign signs.”