DeFede

Brothers to the Rescue

Alex finally won his first election in 1994, defeating Carlos Manrique for a state House seat. In 1996 Alex's maverick, go-for-broke style led him to challenge his own party's leadership when he and state Rep. Luis Rojas tried to block fellow Republican Dan Webster from becoming speaker of the House. Rojas and Diaz de la Portilla believed Webster was too conservative, and they tried to forge a coalition with Democrats that would have put Rojas in the speaker's chair.

Their stunning gambit nearly succeeded, but in failing, Diaz de la Portilla and Rojas were relegated to the political sidelines. For the next two years Webster made sure any bill they sponsored was dead as soon as it was introduced.

Alex slowly rebuilt his political standing in Tallahassee by forging new alliances, but he never lost that upstart impulse. He regularly has challenged the banking industry by introducing legislation to ban ATM fees, a fight he perennially loses. And several years ago he and Rojas orchestrated a behind-the-scenes maneuver that killed a $60 million tax break for Wayne Huizenga.

His rehabilitation was completed last year when he was appointed chairman of the Education/K-12 Committee and was given the task of shepherding the governor's school-voucher program through the House.

By the time Alberto Gutman pleaded guilty in October to Medicare fraud and resigned from the Senate, Alex already had begun mapping out his campaign to win that seat. His victory in December leaves him in a unique and enviable position. State law now limits senators to two four-year terms. Since there are two years left on Gutman's term, Alex gets to serve those and remain eligible to run for two additional four-year terms. So if he is re-elected in 2002 and 2006, he could serve ten years in the Senate while those around him are limited to eight.

In the Senate, where seniority is tremendously important in cultivating power, this simple twist of fate will cause everyone in Tallahassee -- from lobbyists to the governor -- to view Alex differently. In effect he will now be seen as an heir to the throne, as opposed to just another lawmaker. "Clearly he will be in a position to be a power broker," says Levy. "And he is smart enough politically to make that play."

Meanwhile Renier is ready to take over the District 115 House seat Alex abandoned to run for Senate. With his election at the end of the month all but assured, Renier hopes his time in Tallahassee will stretch slightly longer than his tenure on the school board.

In many respects Renier is the most serious-minded of the brothers. He also is the most politically conservative. If Alex is a doer, Renier is a thinker and a bit of a policy wonk, not entirely surprising given that he has no "real world" experience and that all his learning (outside his time on the school board) has come from inside the classroom. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Florida International University and has completed the work for a master's in public administration from Cornell University. He earns a living at his parent's mattress company, De Mattress.

Renier's record on the school board was mixed. He wasted needless energy on social-policy questions such as school prayer, and championed a fundamentally flawed program to drug-test students. Yet on some issues he developed a strong and thoughtful voice, particularly when it came to demanding that housing developers pay a greater share of the costs of building new schools. Those developers returned the favor by helping bankroll Marta Perez's campaign to unseat Renier in 1998.

Although the family won't admit it, Renier's loss was an embarrassment, for Alex in particular. As the family's political strategist and campaign manager, he underestimated Perez, a rookie's mistake. Renier was just as culpable. He was naive in his approach to that 1998 election, taking for granted voter support and refusing to campaign with much intensity.

The current campaign to win a seat in the House is markedly different. Neither Renier nor Alex is assuming anything. Renier has been walking the district every night, going door to door seeking support. Electoral redemption seems close at hand.

"In the political process you win some and you lose some," Alex shrugs. "It's a question of what do you learn from that loss. You take your licks and you move on. I think Renier has grown a lot from that experience. I think he's matured a lot, and I think he'll be a better public servant as a result."

Once in office Renier and Alex may be difficult to unseat. Following this year's census, the legislature will redraw House and Senate district boundaries. And as the Republicans are in the majority, they'll be doing the drawing. This will leave Renier and Alex in the position of reconfiguring their districts to their best advantage.


How to account for this political ambition? "It's in the blood," Renier says. Alex and Miguel agree. As they were growing up, the dinner-table talk at home often revolved around political affairs. Their grandfather was a magistrate in Cuba, active in politics. "He was known as a man who would take on any noble cause," Miguel says.

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