DeFede

Brothers to the Rescue

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."

Miguel, Alex, and Renier Diaz de la Portilla have gone from boys to men to political dynasty
Miguel, Alex, and Renier Diaz de la Portilla have gone from boys to men to political dynasty
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."

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.

On the county commission, Miguel has done his share of that. Along with Katy Sorenson, he has been a consistent voice decrying the power of special interests in county government, and he has offered more legislation to control its corrupting influence than any of his colleagues. At times, however, Miguel has proven to be his own biggest problem. During his first few years on the dais, he tended to alienate fellow commissioners with his self-righteousness, losing votes he might otherwise have won had he not been quite so arrogant. Time appears to have taught him the value of humility and patience, even if some would say he still has a way to go.

During last fall's budget hearings, he outshone the mayor, the manager, and his fellow commissioners by deftly moving money to worthy programs that were about to be overlooked. The only serious blemish on his record was his refusal to support last year's gay-rights ordinance. Miguel maintains that his vote on the measure was based on his belief that government involvement in the issue was not warranted, not on some political motivation to curry favor with conservative voters.

In fact he acknowledges that vote will almost certainly hurt his chances to become mayor. The issue may resurface as religious conservatives attempt to place a measure on the ballot that would repeal the ordinance. A petition drive is under way, and the ballot language may soon come to the commission for approval. Would he vote to place the question on the ballot? "My statement," he responds, "is that that issue has already come before us, we dealt with the issue, and it's time to move forward."

He is equally vague when it comes to talk of running against Penelas this year. "Alex Penelas is tough," he says cryptically. In truth it doesn't make sense for Miguel to run against Penelas now. For one thing, thanks to the stable of lobbyists Penelas has corralled, he could raise a million dollars in one week for his campaign. (Don't forget that he raised $250,000 for Miriam Alonso in a single night.) For another, Penelas knows how to effectively counter the image of special-interest whore that attaches to such gluttonous fundraising.

Bob Levy agrees it would be foolish for Miguel to run against Penelas this year. Levy says he has seen private polls still placing the mayor's favorable rating above 70 percent, even after the debacle of the failed penny-tax referendum. The best course for Miguel, according to Levy, would be to wait until term limits force Penelas to leave office in 2004. It's possible he could leave sooner. If Al Gore is elected president this year, Penelas most likely will be in line for a cabinet post. "Miguel can wait," Levy says. "In my mind Miguel is the best-positioned political figure in Dade County today." The key is patience, and picking the right moment to run for mayor.

Miguel's brother Alex sees it differently. "There are things that are more important than patience," he asserts. "If you see things going wrong in county government, if you see injustices being committed, and you see widespread corruption, I think you have a moral responsibility as a public servant to step up and try and stop that from continuing.

"Ultimately that is a decision he is going to have to make," Alex continues. "If he decides to run, obviously I will be there for him, fighting on the frontlines for him. I think he will make a heck of a mayor, and will clean up county government, which desperately needs to be cleaned up. I think he will bring integrity to the process. I think he will be a mayor that all Dade Countians can be proud of. And I think that's important."

Alex concedes it would be extremely difficult to win such a race. "We are fighting against very powerful interests," he points out. "We would be fighting against a multimillion-dollar campaign. We would be fighting against people with a vested interest in Alex Penelas, a small group of people who I guess, through sheer coincidence, are getting all the county contracts. So it's a very difficult race because you have to fight against those powerful interests."

Brother Renier seems eager for Miguel to challenge Penelas, despite the long-shot odds. "We've always taken chances," he says. "I think he'll take the risk even if it means he may lose. We've never been afraid of losing. Our father taught us to be courageous and to do what is in our hearts, and let the chips fall where they may."

jim.defede@miaminewtimes.com

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