Op-Ed

Ileana’s out — let the horse race to replace her begin!

Kristin Rosen Gonzalez, a Miami Beach commissioner, is running for the open seat that U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will leave when she retires in 2018. Many others likely will follow.
Kristin Rosen Gonzalez, a Miami Beach commissioner, is running for the open seat that U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will leave when she retires in 2018. Many others likely will follow.

With the surprise retirement of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Democrats were given an early Christmas present — a golden opportunity to pick up a seat in Congress. So it’s time for political junkies to do an early assessment of what could be a promising field of candidates. Here is mine:

▪ City reformers: Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez has already announced, and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell apparently is thinking about announcing. Both ran for their respective offices as underdogs fighting the political establishment. They know how to win, but as relative newcomers they will have to show early fundraising and organizing ability.

▪ State legislators: Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez and Rep. David Richardson are doing the political calculus. They both know how to raise money and run a campaign. Neither one was expected to win their first race, but they did. Richardson has a significant constituency in the gay community, which is no small matter in this district. Notwithstanding his Harvard education, Rodriguez has a down-to-earth campaign style, and you should note his vote this week to potentially lower property taxes. Both men will have to demonstrate they can take their game to the next level.

▪ Outsider: Matt Haggman, Miami program director for the Knight Foundation, is well known and highly respected by the downtown establishment. Being an outsider is a good thing. His challenge will be to demonstrate that his philanthropic circle knows how to write political checks and that he has the ability to put together the necessary political apparatus.

▪ Sleeper: Fernand Amandi is the gifted radio talk show host of 610 WIOD. Amandi is highly articulate and has consulted political campaigns nationally and internationally. If Amandi decides to run, he is the out-of-the-box candidate that all of the above might have to worry about.

▪ Repeat candidate: Scott Fuhrman had a free ride in the Democratic primary last time, but his personal issues doomed any remote chance of the Democrats defeating Ros-Lehtinen. If he is nominated, my guess is the same thing will happen again.

▪ Unknowns: Michael Hepburn and Mark Person will have to show some fundraising credibility before anyone takes note.

▪ Gossip you did not know: The Democratic donor class and party elites were lighting up the phones Sunday night and Monday morning. One person being urged to look at the race was Joe Falk. A vaunted party fundraiser, philanthropist and leader in the gay community, Falk is more than capable of resourcing a campaign. Problem is, he won’t run.

Most poeple know that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in this district by 20 points in an otherwise devastating year for Democrats. But if there is any way to lose, leave it to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The worst thing it could do is try to meddle in the primary. Conversely, it should plan on spending resources here. Strong leadership from Florida Democratic Chairperson Steve Bittel and Congressman Ted Deutch, the fast-rising star of Florida’s Democratic Congressional delegation, will be required. Dade Democratic Party Chairman Juan Cuba will need to strengthen the party infrastructure at a time when the local Republican Party has far more of everything.

There are other ways the Democrats can lose. The Republicans have a deep and talented bench capable of reaching across the broad partisan chasm in this district. Reps. Jose Felix Diaz and Jeanette Nunez and Sen. Rene Garcia are three who come to mind. All are busy with the frantic last week of the legislative session. My guess is that in the end, they will look at more viable political options than this Congressional seat.

Early fundraising by a candidate will demonstrate credibility and help winnow the field. However, as Justin Sayfie and I wrote in a recent op-ed, campaigns now are more than who the donor class and political elites are supporting. You have to be able to offer the big idea with a style that helps you emerge over the noise of social media. The candidate that figures out how to articulate a message relevant to voters in 2018 will be the one that wins. That means standing for something beyond being against President Trump or running on milqetoast Democratic dogma.

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.

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