Brothers to the Rescue

Miguel, Alex, and Renier Diaz de la Portilla have gone from boys to men to political dynasty
These are heady days for the Diaz de la Portilla clan. Renier, youngest of the three brothers, is on the verge of winning a seat in the Florida legislature, resurrecting a political career that only two years ago seemed all but dead after a brief but tumultuous stint on the Miami-Dade County School Board. After winning the Republican primary in December, Renier now will face Ofelia Hirigoyen, a Democrat, on January 25. So confident are the political cognoscenti that Renier will win in heavily Republican State House District 115 that the teachers' union, United Teachers of Dade, recently endorsed him, in spite of the fact that Hirigoyen is herself a public school teacher and has been a member of the union for 26 years.

Alex, the middle brother, is the newest member of the Florida Senate after last month's trouncing of Carlos Valdes in a bitter race to succeed Alberto Gutman, who resigned from office last fall to pursue new opportunities inside the federal prison system. In a few years, owing to the vagaries of term limits, Alex is likely to become the first Cuban-American president of the Senate, and one of the most powerful South Florida politicians in Tallahassee over the next decade.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, oldest of the three, is also the one whose future is the most uncertain. After serving nearly seven years on the Miami-Dade County Commission, he is growing restless and is considering a campaign against Mayor Alex Penelas. Should he succumb to the temptation, the battle will be fascinating to watch. Although it's highly unlikely Miguel could beat Penelas, the damage he could inflict on the mayor and his cronies over an eight-month campaign could certainly sully our sexy mayor's image as earnest reformer. A decision will have to be made soon, however. If Miguel has any hope of mounting a credible campaign, he will need to announce his intentions by the end of this month. "January is probably it in terms of making a decision," he says. "Right now, though, my focus is to see how I can help Renier in his election."

Brothers Diaz de la Portilla in younger days
Brothers Diaz de la Portilla in younger days

So it goes with the brothers Diaz de la Portilla. Like the Three Musketeers, they rally around one another, creating a political force that is greater than sum of its parts.

Veteran lobbyist and political observer Bob Levy says this trio should be the envy of the political establishment. "The Diaz de la Portilla family has one significant advantage," Levy notes. "They are all young." (Renier is 28, Alex is 35, and Miguel is only 36 years old.) "They are clearly positioned to be the political family of the 2000s," he adds. "Assuming none of them slips and falls, they are poised for nothing but leadership."

Like most brothers, Renier, Alex and Miguel agree on a few things (they're all Republicans, for instance) and fight over just about everything else, such as: Which brother has earned the right to be considered the "political flagship" of the family?

"Don't let him get away with any of that 'I'm the flagship of the family' crap," Alex admonishes during an interview. "He's always trying to tell folks he's the flagship. Well, he's not. I was the first one to run for office. Not him. Me." This is true. Alex ran for a seat in the state legislature in 1990 and 1992.

"But he lost," Miguel points out the next day when told of his brother's comments. "If losing two elections makes you a flagship," he continues, laughing, "then he's the flagship. But if you're talking about which one of us was the first to be elected to office -- well, then I'd be the flagship." (Several days later I received a message from Miguel saying the family had held a meeting and that after intense negotiations finally agreed Miguel, in part because he is the oldest, now would officially be the family's political flagship.)

But if Miguel is the flagship, Alex is the engine.

Bright, articulate, and intensely aggressive, Alex is the family's political strategist and the person who manages all the election campaigns. In 1993 it was Alex who pushed and prodded Miguel to run for the county commission. When Miguel expressed reservations, Alex ignored them. He filled out all the candidate-registration forms on Miguel's behalf, delivered them to Miguel's law office just before filing deadline, and nagged at him until he signed.

Three years later he did the same for Renier, surveying the political landscape and deciding that his baby brother's best shot at winning elected office was the school board. This despite Renier being only 25 years old, single, and with no children. He hadn't even attended public school while growing up in Miami. "I was always very interested in politics," Renier says, "and I knew I wanted to run for something. Alex is the one who came up with the idea that I should run for school board." If Renier expressed any doubts, Alex refused to hear them. Once again he filled out the necessary campaign forms and presented them to his brother as a fait accompli. "He did convince me," Renier admits. "I had a lot of doubts, and I was scared. In the end, however, it was my decision."

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