Jose Javier Rodriguez: Master of the Minority

Jose Javier Rodriguez is in Tally to get things done, not to pick partisan fights.
Jose Javier Rodriguez is in Tally to get things done, not to pick partisan fights.
Photo by Stian Roenning

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

After November's Republican shellacking at the polls, you'd imagine the few Florida Democrats who emerged unscathed are about as eager to return to Tallahassee as a fourth-grader going back to school after a glorious summer vacation.

So why does Democratic Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez sound so damn excited about sitting in a House that now has a new GOP supermajority, not to mention a re-elected, re-emboldened Rick Scott in the governor's mansion?

"The honest truth is what happened this November doesn't change a whole lot," Rodriguez says. "The GOP had an overwhelming majority before, and they still do today. Yet I still got a lot of things done before."

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He's right. In a state where the phrase "bipartisan effort" is uttered about as often as "brilliant Miami Dolphins draft pick," Rodriguez has been an exception. His first two years in Tally found him crossing the aisle to push meaningful reform on everything from the broken Department of Children and Families to economic development grants. He was even the rare Dade Democrat to fight the atrocious Dolphin Stadium renovation plans.

But it shouldn't be a surprise that a guy who grew up in a Republican family before going to the blue side knows a thing or two about compromise.

Born to a Midwestern mother and a father who fled Cuba when he was 15 during Operation Pedro Pan, Rodriguez actually avoided politics in favor of community service through Miami Palmetto Senior High School. Nor was there politics while he did his undergrad work at Brown University and earned a law degree at Harvard. It wasn't until he returned to Miami and began working in legal-services organizations that Rodriguez's thoughts turned toward Tallahassee.

"We're trying to make local government more responsible on everything from zoning... to wage cuts," he says. "The idea of running for office came out of that, because the fact was it was bad state policy that kept coming up the block toward change."

In 2012, Rodriguez won a seat representing Brickell and Coral Gables by ousting Alex Diaz de la Portilla -- no small feat for a newcomer taking on a member of one of Dade's dynastic families. This November, he held onto the seat despite a Republican challenger who outspent him on advertising.

The reason is simple, Rodriguez says: He's in Tally to get things done, not to pick partisan fights. "My message to a lot of people is that most of our pressing issues aren't controversial; they just need attention and hard work to get done."

This time around, that includes reforming insurance policies and upping resources for education and health care. That doesn't mean he won't fight the GOP -- he points toward Medicare expansion as one tussle certain to rumble the House this year.

But Rodriguez hopes Dade County will judge him on a long curve. "The Dade delegation needs to have much higher- and longer-term goals," he says. "The biggest frustration for me is the press coverage after a legislative session is always a list of special projects we have brought home. That's not the measure we want."

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