Florida Politics

Former conservative carries Democratic hopes for blue wave in Florida Senate race

GOP state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Democrat David Perez are facing off for state Senate District 36.
GOP state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Democrat David Perez are facing off for state Senate District 36.

The path to a potential blue wave in November — and a Democratic-controlled Florida Senate — passes through Northwest Miami-Dade County, where a veteran GOP lawmaker hopes to defeat a first-time candidate backed by Democratic leaders despite his relatively recent conversion to their party.

The race to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Rene Garcia in District 36, which stretches from Miami Lakes to Hialeah and west to Doral, is among five competitive state Senate races that Democrats have identified as key to regaining a majority in one of the two Florida chambers for the first time in two decades.

The contest pits Hialeah Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a charter school champion and Tallahassee fixture since his election to the House in 2012, against the lesser known David Perez, a Coral Gables firefighter lieutenant and protégé of former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas.

The flamethrowing is already under way.

Perez, 48, an advocate of public schools and longtime president of the North Hialeah Elementary Parent Teacher Association, pounced early on what he has called a glaring “conflict of interest” hanging over the Diaz campaign: that the charter-school advocate and House K-12 Appropriations chair earns a six-figure salary as the chief operating officer of Doral College, a not-for-profit managed by the state’s biggest charter-school operator that exists to offer dual-enrollment courses to charter school students.

During his time in Tallahassee, Diaz has been one of the industry’s biggest warriors, spearheading legislation to expand charter schools, wrest authority over their regulation from local school boards to a state committee, and allow a subset of charter schools in poor-performing areas to employ teachers who have not been certified by the state.

Diaz, 45, was a key backer of the controversial bill that makes it easier for privately managed charter schools to open up across the state and receive additional taxpayer funding to bankroll their operations. Perez called the controversial education legislation the “single worst bill for Florida students and teachers.”

“He is literally writing legislation to favor his employer’s bottom line,” Perez said, echoing criticisms made by Diaz’s last general election opponent. “Absolutely, it’s a weakness that he’s going to have to answer to.”

In his defense, Diaz points out that the bill also included $30 million in funding to expand a voucher program for kids with disabilities, and that he — like his fellow representatives — remain “bound and overseen by the ethics rules of the Florida House.”

He also emphasized that while he holds a top position at Doral College, he specializes in K-12 appropriations.

“Why would anyone fight giving military kids, kids who have been bullied, kids trapped at a failing school or special needs kids more choices over where they go to school? To do so is insensitive, and frankly, in some situations, unsafe,” Diaz said. “Tailoring the education to the child instead of the child to the education is the right thing to do for every family, and I will always fight for more choices for our parents and children.”

In 2016, Democrat Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich made Diaz’s charter school ties a key tenet of her campaign to flip Diaz’s House District 103 seat blue. She lost by 6 percentage points.

Perez says he wants new ethics rules. Diaz responds that that’s par for the course for a liberal candidate whose policy proposals, like expanding Medicaid and banning assault rifles, would put Florida on a “road to full socialism.”

In campaign attack ads, Diaz has depicted Perez as a “tax and spend liberal” who is “bad for students’ education” because he is opposed to charter-school expansion. In one advertisement, Perez is seen wearing a white pointed dunce cap.

Perez, like Diaz, is a Cuban American whose parents fled the Communist dictatorship. And up until just a few years ago, another thing they had in common was their party affiliation.

Perez registered as a Republican when he was 18 and didn’t leave the GOP until around 2014. He voted for Barack Obama twice and cast a ballot in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. His lone experience in government came as an aide to Penelas and chief spokesman at county hall in the early 2000s.

“That was my initial party registration,” he said of his conservative roots, adding that he became disenchanted with the GOP following the Tea Party movement.

Locally, he cited the Republican Party’s intent on reformatting the pension system of unionized firefighters as a key reason for his move to the Democratic side. He serves as a district vice president for the Florida Professional Firefighters union.

After Penelas decided against running for the District 36 seat, party leaders turned to Perez.

Diaz considers it a weakness that a former conservative stands as the Democrats’ best shot at beating him.

“I think it says a lot that the Democrats think their best chance to win is to recruit a recent Republican as a candidate,” he said.

The possibility of flipping the Florida Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 24-16 seat advantage, has drawn national attention. In July, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee pledged it would spend $6 million to try to flip eight state senates — Colorado, Minnesota, Florida, Arizona, New York, Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

Of the five Florida districts considered particularly vulnerable to be flipped, District 36 is the only one in South Florida.

“This is probably the most important, if not, the second most important race in the state,” said Perez, who narrowly defeated a political newcomer in the Democratic primary.

Asked if he was confident in his general-election chances despite a single-digit victory, Perez said a “win is a win” and that his focus was squarely on Diaz, who has so far has a clear edge in fundraising.

Diaz has raised more than $600,000 between his contributions and those made to his political committee, Better Florida Education.

Perez has raised about $222,000 between his contributions and those made to his political committee, Floridians for Change.

On the issues, Diaz says he will continue to push for a statewide system to approve new charter schools — even after a judge threw out a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would do just that. His plan would also provide a check on “bad actors” whose charter schools fail. He also wants to eliminate red-light cameras, reduce tolls and curb the negative impacts of rock-mining blasts.

A pro-life candidate, Diaz has been endorsed by Florida Right to Life. He is married with four kids, and says he was born and raised in Hialeah. He worked for years at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High before representing the area for six years in the state House.

Perez, who said he has lived in Hialeah since 1979 after his parents moved to South Florida from New Jersey, is married and has one son.

He wants to raise teacher pay, enact stricter gun control laws and fight against climate change and sea-level rise. Endorsed by the anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action, he also wants to “keep guns out of schools” and modify the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act to remove a provision allowing armed school employees.

He prefers sworn officers, although he agrees with the gun-control measures included in the bill, including raising the age to purchase a rifle and banning bump stocks.

“We passed the most sweeping school security bill in Florida’s history during the last session,” Diaz said about the legislation, passed following the Parkland shooting and supported by the families of those killed at the high school. “It was reasonable, smart policy, and for Perez to say he would oppose it is simply putting politics over people.”

As a longtime first responder, Perez said he has seen firsthand what gun violence looks like. Combined with his position as PTA president at North Hialeah Elementary for the past six years, he said he’s uniquely qualified to oversee the safety of students and teachers.

“We’ll get guns out of the classroom. The whole question about arming teachers to me is ludicrous,” he said. “I’m a first responder. I require constant training. And I know police officers require the same.”