The Carlos Lacasa File

Meet the most powerful politician you know nothing about

According to Garcia, Rojas has hated him since the latter arrived in the legislature in 1988. Then in 1996 Rojas and then-Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla crossed party lines and bucked the Republican leadership to try to make Rojas House Speaker. The move angered many Cuban Republicans in the Miami-Dade delegation, including Lacasa, who had his own aspirations to be Speaker.

According to Alex Diaz de la Portilla, the dispute became personal during his Senate campaign, when Lacasa not only helped his opponent Carlos Valdez but polled to see how he would do running against him in the future. "Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla is completely convinced I went on radio for Valdez and called him a delinquent, or some such word," explains Lacasa, who denies the charge. "If they can produce the tape, I'll apologize."

Both Lacasa and all three Diaz de la Portillas are still in their thirties, with promising political careers ahead. Given the potential for years of political warfare to come, if it continues, the origins of the dispute will likely become ever less relevant.

As chairman of appropriations, Carlos Lacasa holds his fellow state representatives' attention
Courtesy Carlos Lacasa
As chairman of appropriations, Carlos Lacasa holds his fellow state representatives' attention

In one year Carlos Lacasa will be termed out of the House of Representatives. Last December he filed to run in 2002 for the state Senate seat currently occupied by Alex Diaz de la Portilla. For the political cognoscenti, it is one of the most anticipated campaigns on the horizon.

"That is going to be really bad," says one Cuban-American legislator who has worked with both sides. "Carlos is going to raise a lot of money. Even if you think he is going to lose, he will bloody [Diaz de la Portilla] up."

With more than a year to go, Lacasa is slowly amassing a war chest that is now at $28,500. It won't hurt his fundraising that he is chairman of appropriations. Some of the first donors onboard include lobbyists Ron Book and Bob Levy, as well as business concerns such as insurance companies and real estate interests. The incumbent Diaz de la Portilla has only declared raising $15,100 so far.

Lacasa will need all the money he can get. He admits he's a lackluster campaigner. Lacasa's advisors struggle with their candidate's reluctance to reduce policy issues he is passionate about into sound bites. Unfortunately for him, Lacasa lives in District 34, which is dominated by elderly Cuban voters who often are more concerned with personality than policy. Although his ideas might sell better in a more educated, Americanized district, Lacasa refuses to move from his High Pines home, a small neighborhood between South Miami and Coral Gables.

Some of the issues likely to be dissected during the campaign have already surfaced. The Diaz de la Portillas will surely attack him for his opposition to the airport authority. Lacasa will have plenty of fodder against Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who is awaiting a determination by an administrative law judge on whether he committed more than 300 campaign violations in 1999 when he ran for the Senate. If all the charges are upheld, Diaz de la Portilla could face a maximum fine of $843,999 by the Florida Elections Commission.

This summer the legislature's Senate redistricting committee will travel around the state for public hearings. Lacasa is a member of the committee that will draw the new shape of every Senate district. To the charge that he chose the committee to tailor a Senate seat most beneficial to himself, Lacasa pleads guilty. "Of course anyone who tells you different is a freaking liar," he says. Then he smiles. "I told you I'm not very political."

Despite widespread speculation that Lacasa is restructuring county government to provide a future office for himself, perhaps as mayor, he insists the state Senate is the extent of his own political ambition. He wants to concentrate on making enough money to raise a family with his wife, Mary Matos. The pair met when she was a seventeen-year-old high school senior and he was a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer visiting the school to preside over a mock trial. He's quick to point out that she turned eighteen two months after their first meeting. The couple dated for four years and then wed in 1997.

In the end many of the charges the Diaz de la Portillas level at Lacasa, such as the accusation that he is power hungry, fall shy of the mark. Although his past political gamesmanship does give some credence to this perspective, its one-dimensional portrait of Lacasa misses an intelligent man who is evolving politically and has important ideas to offer.

A good example of Lacasa's political development can be seen in his attitude toward a controversial letter he signed in 1995, along with fourteen other lawmakers, attacking the Walt Disney Company for extending health benefits to the live-in partners of homosexual employees. Today Lacasa calls the letter "the most significant political mistake of my life." He admits he signed it as part of a strategy to court fundamentalist legislators to gain a leadership position in Tallahassee. "If I ever had to backpedal on anything, it would be the letter," he says.

He hasn't publicly repudiated it in the past, he says, in part because his position has "evolved" but also on the advice of campaign staff. They fear that any support of gay rights will hurt him in his elderly Cuban district. Still he professes to feel a great weight lifted from his shoulders in being able to speak out against the intolerance the letter represents. Perhaps it is a sign that Lacasa is maturing, learning that the ends don't always justify the means, and that principles should come before political strategy.

Of course it could be that he's just trying to broaden his base and position himself for higher office.

Or maybe it's both.

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