Politics & Parties & Power

How to campaign in the new House District 25? There's always Cuba.

On that afternoon Betancourt was not sure how her Cuba policy announcement would play in District 25, but she's gotten praise close to her Kendall-area home. "Well, my next-door neighbor rolled down the window this morning and she says, 'Annie, you're courageous and my daughter wants a sign in her yard.'" Also inspiring was a new poll by the Washington, D.C. firm Hamilton Beattie, which showed Diaz-Balart ahead by 50 to 39 percent, with 11 percent undecided. That was a daunting spread but better than the twenty-point lead several polls found weeks earlier. Besides, the survey contained some glimmers from which, if one were very optimistic, it was possible to imagine a close race.

The pollsters found that Republicans familiar with Betancourt had a favorable impression of her by a ratio of three to one. And 54 percent of the district's registered voters were women, which could also work to Betancourt's advantage. In addition Cuban Americans -- the main locus of pro-embargo sentiment -- composed only 31 percent of District 25 voters. Groups who are less passionate about Cuba policy constituted a majority, with non-Cuban Hispanics accounting for 20 percent, Anglos 42 percent, and blacks 6 percent.

Moreover, after "communicating messages and backgrounds" of the candidates, the poll data indicated that, incredibly, the race was a statistical dead heat: 45 percent for Diaz-Balart and 43 percent for Betancourt. "We are within striking distance," she declared.

Annie Betancourt, here at a senior housing complex in West Kendall, has to charm over many voters besides the elderly to even dream of winning
Steve Satterwhite
Annie Betancourt, here at a senior housing complex in West Kendall, has to charm over many voters besides the elderly to even dream of winning

But the poll bore some bad news too: Few people knew who she was. The survey found that Betancourt had "very low" name recognition in District 25, even among the groups most likely to back a Democrat: younger white women, African Americans, and Anglos in South Miami-Dade. If she was to catch Diaz-Balart she would need something she could not afford: a media blitz. Her opponent was already airing a commercial depicting him chatting with senior citizens about helping them with health-care costs. How could she out-communicate a well-connected public relations man who had tapped into the fundraising network that helped elect President George W. Bush?

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham was probably the best-suited Democrat to help Betancourt communicate. Despite the GOP leanings of the area that is now District 25, Graham blasted his 1998 Republican opponent Charlie Crist here 70 to 30 percent. On October 12 a group of about 50 Betancourt friends and supporters gathered amid the Saturday-morning bustle of Hooligan's sports bar on South Dixie Highway to listen to Graham and write checks to Betancourt. The candidate, a University of Miami alumna, chose the time and place for this fundraiser to tap into the pregame excitement of the Hurricanes and Seminoles' annual gridiron grudge match. (Hooligan's owner Jay Love is also a supporter.) Standing with a microphone next to a DJ's podium, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee criticized President Bush for obsessing about Iraq when the biggest threats to Americans were Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Then he cast Betancourt as a caring populist: "Annie is going to be my congresswoman, so when I lose my Social Security check or can't get through to the Medicare office I know who to call," he mused.Betancourt can in fact point to her experience working in elderly assistance, health care, and education. After receiving a bachelor's degree from UM in psychology in 1974, she took a job at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she was liaison for the Hispanic community. She also brings up her public policy experience as a member of the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District. Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, appointed Betancourt in 1991 and she served until 1994, when voters in her Kendall-based district elected her to the Florida House.

Betancourt did not raise the Cuba issue that morning but it was still resonating. Ramon Ramos, one of Betancourt's Cuban-American supporters at the fundraiser, was critical of the many exiles who support the embargo but also travel to Cuba. "How can you be such a goddamn hypocrite?" he exclaimed. "Being a Cuban American and saying, 'No end to the embargo,' but then allowing their families to go to Cuba and take all kinds of goods there?"

Betancourt's core supporters are a loose alliance of Cuban-American and Anglo Democrats who support dismantling the embargo and promoting dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba. They include Alfredo Duran, a lawyer, Bay of Pigs veteran, and past president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy; Silvia Wilhelm, president of Puentes Cubanos (Cuban Bridges); and Eddie Levy, founder of the Cuban American Defense League and the humanitarian aid group Jewish Solidarity. Among the small number of Cuban-American and Anglo businessmen who have given money are Arthur Hertz, CEO of Wometco and long-time Democratic contributor; Antonio Prado, a Hamilton Group executive and member of Republicans for Annie; and her cousins Charlie and Emilio Martinez, owners of Caribe Homes.

The next day Graham appeared again with Betancourt in Naples, on the western edge of District 25, to help her attract voters in Collier County, where some Republican leaders were unhappy about their unification with Miami-Dade. About ten percent of the district's voters reside in Collier County.

After her primary victory against former Univision reporter Lorna Virgili, Betancourt had flown to Washington, D.C. and convinced the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which targets candidates thought to have a chance of beating Republicans, to contribute $5000. With time running out for fundraising and the anti-embargo issue in her pocket, Betancourt flew again to Washington on October 16 to make another appeal to DCCC. She met with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who along with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake co-sponsored a bill to end the ban on travel to Cuba. While in D.C. Betancourt also garnered about $3000 from a fundraiser at the home of Raquel Vallejo, another Cuban American who supports lifting the embargo. As of press time, Democratic Party leaders had helped pump about $150,000 into Betancourt's account, keeping her in the game.

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