Janelle Perez: Moderate Democrat in the Crosshairs of Miami Politics

State senate candidate Janelle Perez's wife, Monica, supported her during her battle with late-stage lymphoma.
State senate candidate Janelle Perez's wife, Monica, supported her during her battle with late-stage lymphoma. Photo by Janelle Perez
State senate candidate Janelle Perez's healthcare business background and moderate political stances have drawn jabs from a wide range of detractors: from progressives who claim she's not progressive enough, to her Republican opponent in the race, Alexis Calatayud, whose camp has attacked Perez for her work at her family’s Medicare insurance company.

Running for a seat in Florida's newly redrawn District 38, Perez has vowed to stand up for LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and environmental protection. If she's elected, she will join Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones as one of the only openly gay members of Florida's statehouse.

But Perez's politics aren't all left of center. She also has vowed to implement business-friendly policies and to support the Second Amendment, although she advocates for gun control and a ban on military-style assault rifles.

Cutting to the bare bones of her messaging, Perez has coined a new term, or perhaps redefined one: Miami Democrat. To Perez, it means being fiscally conservative while engaging social issues such as abortion and gay rights progressively. "I'm a 'Miami Democrat' — which means I saw how my family suffered under communism," says Perez.

The state senate race stayed relatively non-confrontational until late September, when Calatayud’s camp began to run ads lambasting Perez's position as co-owner of Doctors Healthcare Plans Inc., where her father is an executive. Citing figures for medical claims supposedly denied by Perez's company, the ads recite the tagline, “You get sick. Janelle Perez, she gets rich."

Perez has countered that the ads use blatantly misleading statistics.

"If you can’t offer hope and solutions, you offer lies and fear... She has no solutions and can’t answer the questions, ‘What’s your stance on reproductive rights? What’s your stance on more guns on our streets?’" Perez says of her opponent.

Perez claims the political attack ads have exploited a picture of her in a baseball cap, celebrating her newfound health after her battle with late-stage cancer. Amid the controversy, Perez took to social media to post another photo of herself, confined to a healthcare facility, undergoing chemotherapy.

The move prompted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' “rapid response director” and go-to polemicist Christina Pushaw to weigh in, accusing Perez of misleading her followers to believe Calatayud's campaign targeted her for her illness or depicted her going through cancer treatment.

It's only gotten more vicious in recent days, with Perez now claiming Calatayud's campaign sent out a text message ad that released Perez's personal cellphone number.

As the November 8 election nears and the race continues to heat up, Perez remains confident of her chances. While speaking with New Times, Perez repeatedly corrects herself: "If we win... when we win."

Perez in the Making

Perez's conservative stance on economics was engendered by her parents, Martin and Sofia, who came from Cuba when they were young, arriving separately in the last few years of the Freedom Flights. Perez and her brother spent their early youth watching their parents take multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Perez says her parents made sure she never went hungry or lacked essentials, even when times were tough. "Our parents struggled but we never felt it," she says.

In the 1990s, Martin Perez, a public accountant at the time, helped take a company, Vincam Human Resources, public as one of their executive officers. The move would mark a pivotal point in Martin's career and the end of the family's precarious financial straits.

Martin and Sofia transferred Janelle from her public school to a private Catholic school in fifth grade, enrolling her in Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in south Miami-Dade. With no irony intended, Perez says she received "one hell of an education," though it was around this time that she began to notice she was different from others.

"If I say anything about my childhood, it is that I was happy and I was always loved. But I feared: Would I still be loved if they knew my truth?" she reflects.

Aside from her sexuality, Perez says, her life was pretty much the same as those of her peers.

"It wasn't really that different from most of the Cuban-American young girls growing up today. I had a conservative, overprotective mother and father," she says.
click to enlarge
Photo by Martin and Sofia Perez

Conflict first arose when Perez realized she would have to live a double life because of her sexuality. In her sophomore year at Our Lady of Lourdes, she sat down for a phone call with her eighth-grade religion teacher. Perez confided in the teacher, who was surprised to hear that Perez had romantic interest in other girls since sixth grade.

The teacher warned her of what awaited if she didn't keep quiet about her sexuality. She told Perez, "Enjoy high school and don't worry about relationships and just figure it out after," as Perez recalls.

Aside from her own reputation, Perez was afraid of what her secret could do to her family. "I was always worried about my sexuality and I could picture my mom in the back of my head saying, 'What are people going to think about us?'" says Perez.

Perez was accepted to Florida State University upon graduation and spent a year there before transferring to Florida International University. In college, Perez studied, worked in the family business, and had to be very careful about any love interests.

After graduating college, she left Miami for Washington, D.C., scared that she would never return home to a conservative Cuban community that she felt was "never ready for an LGBTQ family." Her homesickness was slightly alleviated when she got a job as an intern for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a childhood refugee from Cuba who went on to serve as a Florida congresswoman for 30 years until 2019. Though Ros-Lehtinen was a Republican, working for her was natural for Perez because of the legislator's record on LGBTQ rights. The congresswoman had supported anti-hate crime laws and had voted in favor of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 2010. In 2017, she advocated for trans rights, in part owing to her son coming out as transgender.

Perez was still having a hard time coming to terms with her sexuality during this period. "I hated myself," she says. "I hid my sexuality from my parents and at work."

Around 2013, Perez was planning to move with her then-girlfriend, Monica Ruiz, to Spain, where Perez had just been accepted to a business school. Before the move, Perez went to get a physical, and the doctor called her back in and requested that her father be present at the follow-up appointment.

"When the doctor called and said, 'I need you to come in with her,' I'm in the healthcare business, I know that's not good," Martin Perez says.

Perez was diagnosed with stage 4 follicular lymphoma and large B cell lymphoma. The cancer had spread so much throughout her body that the doctor told her it would be a death sentence if she wasn’t otherwise young and healthy. Uncertain she would survive, Perez came out to her family at age 28.

"It was so hard to see because she was shaking. She was dealing with cancer, and she was more worried about how her mom and I were going to react to this," says Martin Perez, adding that if he were not so close to losing her, he is unsure his reaction would have been the same.

"I told them, imagine if you had to do this without the person you love the most," says Janelle, who re-introduced Monica to her parents as her girlfriend at that time.

Martin and Sofia Perez were quick to accept Monica as part of the family.

"For me it took seeing my daughter tremble and cry – telling me she was gay but being strong to fight her cancer diagnosis – to realize that this is who she is," Martin says.

Today, Perez's cancer has gone dormant in her body, though there is a chance it could return. She and Monica are now married and have two daughters.

Friends and family emphasize a change that occurred in Perez after she was diagnosed with lymphoma.

"We saw a stronger person. From that point on, she had very little fear," Martin says.

Enter the Gauntlet

In late 2021, Janelle Perez was planning to run for U.S. Congress to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar.

But she dropped out of the race in favor of pursuing a position in the Florida capitol. She told the Miami Herald that she made the shift into state politics upon realizing the prospect of Florida passing more restrictive abortion regulations, which she staunchly opposes.

Perez started campaigning for a state senate seat in Florida’s 27th District, but redistricting changed the local political landscape, prompting her to jump into the race to represent Florida’s 38th, which encompasses Coral Gables, Kendall, and parts of Homestead.

Calatayud's campaign has differentiated itself in the race by focusing on education, specifically what is described on her campaign website as "enhancing school choice options." Although Calatayud aims to raise teachers' salaries, it is unclear where she stands on classroom culture war issues such as the "Don't Say Gay” law, which prohibits discussion of sexuality in public school classrooms before fourth grade. (Perez has expressed strong opposition to the measure. Calatayud has not responded to New Times' request for comment.)

Both candidates appear focused on inflation and the housing affordability crisis.

Perez has considered rent caps while Calatayud has outlined a plan to reduce homeowners insurance rates. On the economy, Perez's plan includes enhancing micro-businesses loan programs, implementing tighter anti-discrimination laws for black entrepreneurs looking for loans, and protecting worker benefits.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is Perez's focus on healthcare. She is advocating for Medicaid expansion, arguing that the state not only has the budget for it but is wasting taxpayer money that could cover it.

Meanwhile, Calatayud’s camp has portrayed Perez as a trust-fund millionaire, with political attack ads that focus on her family's high-priced Miami-area residences while hammering away at their managed care business, which offers Medicare Advantage health plans.

Perez faces critique from some progressive activists as well.

One local Black Lives Matter activist, Kya Ells, tells New Times that he and his peers have been rubbed the wrong way by Perez not taking a firmer stance on universal housing issues and gentrification in Miami neighborhoods.

The activist takes issue with Perez for touting an endorsement from the Florida Fraternal Order of Police, a law enforcement union which he decries for its history of defending officers accused of police brutality.

“If any Democrat is going to get an endorsement like that, it’s gonna be her,” the activist says.

Still, Perez’s team says the moderate Democratic brand is the way of the future and a pathway to winning the District 38 race.

According to campaign manager Gianna Trocino Bonner, Perez’s personal saga and political stances make her an easy candidate to represent in the race.

Bonner claims Perez is going to “redefine what it means to be a Democrat in Miami."
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Reina Perez is a freelance writer at Miami New Times. She studied journalism at Nova Southeastern University.
Contact: Reina Perez

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