GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's surprise decision last month to retire wasn't just a shock to the Miami voters who'd kept her in her seat for almost 20 years — it was also a godsend to national Democrats desperate to take back the House. But who to run? Florida Democrats aren't renowned for a deep bench and have flubbed away chance after chance in recent elections.
Now, they seem to have an answer: State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a moderate who defeated both of the powerful Diaz de la Portilla brothers in back-to-back state races. Rodriguez announced this morning that he's going to run for Ros-Lehtinen's seat in a district that went heavily for Hillary Clinton in November.
"The national climate right now is a big part of what's stirring me to action," Rodriguez tells New Times, naming climate change, immigration, and health care as three of President Trump's priorities that he says have outraged Miami voters. "Neither party had a claim to higher ground before Trump, but Trump is taking it to a new level that no one thought was imaginable."
Rodriguez will quickly become the front-runner in an already crowded Democratic primary field that includes Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and businessman Scott Fuhrman, who lost to Ros-Lehtinen in November.
The GOP is as hungry as the Dems to keep the seat and will try to bring their own big-name candidate into the field. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and the latest member of the Bush dynasty, Jeb Bush Jr., have both been approached about the race.
But the 2018 contest should favor a strong Democrat with solid fundraising. Most political analysts predict a House surge for the Dems in the midterms, and the 27th District — which covers most of Miami Beach, Brickell, and Kendall — voted heavily against Trump.
Rodriguez, a Cuban-American Miami native with a Harvard law degree, made a surprise entrance on the political stage by unseating longtime GOP power player Alex Diaz de la Portilla in a 2012 Florida House race. In November, he bested Alex's brother, Miguel, in a state Senate contest — one of the few bright spots for Florida Democrats in a dismal day at the ballot box.
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The 38-year-old says a seat in D.C. would be a more powerful stage to push back against the Trump agenda on issues that directly affect Miami.
"The Trump win was all about economics. It's about a lot of ugly things in America, but it's also about economics and both those need to be addressed," he says. "We need a real vision for an inclusive economy and to send a message that there's a right way to do things in American democracy."
"From sea level rise to funding for public schools to finding a fair health care solution, not just swiftly passing a health care law that's really a massive tax shift from low-income people to the uber-wealthy," he says.