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Mary Barzee Flores has mounted an unexpectedly competitive campaign against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
Mary Barzee Flores has mounted an unexpectedly competitive campaign against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
Photo by Michael Campina

Anti-Trump Fervor Is Driving Dozens of Florida Women to Run for Office

It was blindingly sunny and at least 90 degrees as Emma Collum made her way through an Oakland Park neighborhood of colorful ranch houses with manicured front lawns. Dressed in a T-shirt bearing her name, light-blue shorts, and a Dolphins hat, the fast-talking 33-year-old with long dark hair and a gap-toothed smile glanced from her iPhone to the homes around her, searching for the correct address.

"This is a Republican," said the Democratic candidate for Florida's House of Representatives, "so we'll see how this goes."

She walked up to the mango-colored house and rapped on the door. A dog inside howled until a man appeared behind the screen.

"Hi, so sorry to bother you," she said cheerfully before diving into her spiel. "My name is Emma Collum. I'm running for state House rep for the district, so I'm just coming around to meet the neighbors and say hello. Is it OK if I leave my literature and you do your due diligence?"

The homeowner grunted, "Yeah," so Collum handed over a brochure showing her smiling in front of the New River.

Then she was off to the next address — a light-blue house with a mooning gnome on the front porch — to try to win another vote. By her best guess, this was at least door number 7,000 she's knocked on since last October, when she launched her campaign against a better-known Republican in District 93, a seat long held by the GOP.

Just a couple of years ago, Collum would never have pictured herself running for office. Sure, she'd worked as a legislative aide before becoming an attorney. But she'd always been content to work behind the scenes. Then Donald Trump won the election, and everything changed.

"For me, I ran because I felt afraid," Collum says. "I felt silenced, and I felt afraid, and I felt scared to live in a country that was debasing half of the population, the entire female population."

Collum is emblematic of a trend sweeping the nation. Horrified by the election of a man who openly bragged about grabbing women "by the pussy," electrified by the historic Women's March the day after his inauguration, and outraged anew by the #MeToo movement, record numbers of women are running for office. The trend is being driven by Democratic candidates, many of whom are seeking office for the first time and see their campaigns as a direct response to Trump's presidency.

In Florida, 30 major-party female candidates are running for the U.S. House, 20 of them as Democrats. At the state level, another 22 have launched campaigns for the Florida Senate, 16 as Democrats, according to numbers compiled by Florida International University political scientist Kathryn DePalo and recently retired University of South Florida political analyst Susan MacManus.

Most striking, 97 women are campaigning for the state House, including 66 as Democrats. Compare that to just two years ago, when only 43 female candidates ran for the state House and 18 tried for state Senate, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

"We're seeing this large increase in Democratic women running, and it is really in direct response to Trump's electoral victory," DePalo says. "With his policies, his behavior, they wanted to have a voice."

In South Florida, several of those women have the chance to win consequential races. A Collum victory would mean a Democrat replacing Tallahassee's only Broward Republican. Former judge Mary Barzee Flores is running an unexpectedly competitive campaign against longtime Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. And Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is taking on Rep. Carlos Curbelo in what pollsters view as one of the most flippable GOP seats in Washington.

If the "pink wave" succeeds in winning seats this November, experts see the potential for a ripple effect of more and more women taking the leap into public office.

"It contributes to the idea that women belong in those seats and that women are and should be public leaders, and we should expect them to be," says Jean Sinzdak, an associate director at the Center for American Women and Politics. "And it might help shape our perceptions of what a public leader looks like."

Eileen Higgins won a seat many observers expected would continue to be held by a member of the conservative Cuban establishment.
Eileen Higgins won a seat many observers expected would continue to be held by a member of the conservative Cuban establishment.
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners

Eileen Higgins had just taken her oath of office when she stepped behind the lectern of county commission chambers and raised her right hand again. This time, she'd written the words herself. The new commissioner with short blond hair and tortoise-shell glasses made a new set of commitments: to work on solutions for transit, affordable housing, the prosperity gap, and climate change.

"With your help," she told the packed audience, "we can achieve what we really dream of: a Miami-Dade that is the best place to live on Earth for all of us, not just some of us."

It was a remarkable end to a remarkable race, in which a progressive political newcomer who embraced the moniker "La Gringa" beat out two members of Miami's conservative Cuban establishment in a district that includes Little Havana. And it happened in a ten-week sprint of a special election. The surprise victory could be a sign that the surge of female progressive candidates can actually win in South Florida.

Higgins was born in 1964 to an Irish-Catholic family in Ohio. She lived there only about a month and spent the majority of her childhood in New Mexico, where she began learning Spanish in second grade. She attended the University of New Mexico, following her father's footsteps into engineering and then earning an MBA from Cornell University. She worked for years in marketing in New York City.

Her political awakening came when she was in her 30s and working in New York City, when a church friend invited her to an anti-death penalty event being held by the brother of the Unabomber. The evening opened her eyes, she says, to the racial disparity in death penalty cases.

"For whatever reason, that night sparked a change in me where I just — this to me is the United States of America, and we all deserve the same chances," Higgins says. "That night, it clicked for me."

She left her "big fancy-pants job" in 2006 to become director of the Peace Corps in Belize, a position that put her in charge of the organization's 85-person team in that country, where she oversaw programs ranging from literacy to small-business management. A year later, she joined the U.S. Department of State, where she spent two years as an aide to the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and a year as an economic officer for South African affairs.

Around 2013, she moved to downtown Miami to run her own marketing firm, Inside the Glass. In her free time, she joined local groups pushing for criminal justice reform and climate action. She also used the bus to get around — a firsthand lesson in Miami's deep public transit woes. After Trump's election, she joined the Women's March.

When Bruno Barreiro resigned the county commission seat he'd held for 20 years to run for Congress, Higgins jumped into the race to replace him. She'd spent plenty of time speaking before local commissions as an advocate pushing for programs to end gun violence and break the school-to-prison pipeline. In the District 5 seat, she saw a new way to make change.

"This position kind of unexpectedly just came open, and I happen to live in the district," she says. "And I thought to myself, Maybe this is a chance to be the decision maker versus the person pleading for progress. Maybe I could be part of those decisions. And so I thought, What the heck. Let's try."

It looked like a long shot. For years, the heavily Hispanic district had been held by conservative Cubans. Plus, Higgins was taking on two opponents with far more name recognition — Barreiro's wife Zoraida and former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla, part of a family of political powerbrokers. In its first stories, the Miami Herald cast the race as "dynasty versus dynasty," assuming it would come down to Barreiro versus Diaz de la Portilla. Higgins and a fourth candidate, Republican Carlos Garin, were mostly treated as afterthoughts.

But Higgins, at least, was confident. "I didn't run thinking, Oh, I have no right to be running and there's no way; I don't know enough people and I'm not part of enough organizations and I haven't done enough community work to do that," she says.

Still, even her strong showing in the four-way race on May 22, where she was the top vote-getter, didn't convince many experts she could beat Zoraida Barreiro in the June 19 runoff. The night of that election, Higgins showed up at her campaign's watch party at American Social before the votes had even come in. Glass of wine in hand, she watched the county Supervisor of Elections website with her staff and her parents. When it became clear she had won, a huge smile spread across her face.

Democrats pounced on the win as a harbinger: "Eileen Higgins' victory made it very clear that no seat is safe in Florida," the state Dems said in a statement.

Yet Higgins says her victory was more about connecting with voters on issues they cared about, such as transit, housing, and better-paying jobs, than any larger trend.

"That's all I ever talked about, and sometimes I talked about it in really terrible Spanish, and sometimes I talked about it in beautiful English," she says. "But it didn't really matter. We were talking about the same things."

A victory by Emma Collum would mean a Democrat replacing Tallahassee's only Broward Republican.
A victory by Emma Collum would mean a Democrat replacing Tallahassee's only Broward Republican.
Photo by Ian Witlen / TheCameraClicks.com

By the end of a typical day, Emma Collum's rose gold Apple Watch shows she's taken about 13,000 steps. After months of wear during daily canvassing, her leather sandals, which she calls "unattractive but so comfortable," are beginning to fall apart. When nobody answers one of the thousands of doors she's knocked on, she leaves a note with her personal cell number.

"I'm going to run this entire race like I'm 80 points behind, because I think that you have to stay hungry for this," she says. "It's been important to me from the beginning that I put the sweat equity in this."

Raised in Kingston, New York, Collum attended State University of New York Albany, where she studied public policy and communications. She earned her JD at City University of New York School of Law, where she met her husband James when they were on opposing sides of the debate team. Her first work in politics came as a legislative aide to New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the state's first openly gay state legislator. Collum later worked as an attorney representing tenants and victims of domestic violence.

In 2011, she and her husband moved to Fort Lauderdale, his hometown. Both found work as attorneys. Though Collum volunteered in a legal aid society and for women's and children's advocacy groups, she never considered a more direct role in politics until November 8, 2016, when Trump won the White House.

"You looked around and you kind of felt like, Is there an adult coming into the room?" she says. "And then I realized I needed to be the adult coming into the room."

So Collum founded Women's March Florida, which grew into 13 chapters across the state and eventually bussed more than 25,000 Floridians to D.C. for the mass protest. Five months later, she announced her run for District 93, currently represented by the term-limited Republican George Moraitis, a Trump supporter.

She knew it wouldn't be an easy race. The district, which includes wealthy coastline from Fort Lauderdale to Deerfield Beach, is a stretch of red in deep-blue county. Her opponent, former Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca, has the name recognition and fundraising pull from years in office.

But Collum believes female legislators are needed in Tally, where they could help break the good old boys' culture that was crystallized in the allegations of routine harassment by former Senate President Jack Latvala.

"The trope has been overused — 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu' — I feel like that's the rallying cry," Collum says. "But God, it's so true."

She's running on LGBTQ equality, taking action against sea-level rise, and pushing for affordable housing, economic opportunity, and livable wages. After riding a bus to Tallahassee with student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, she has also advocated for universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Her opponent, she notes, refused to vote on post-Parkland gun resolutions as a Broward commissioner. (LaMarca, who had attended that meeting by phone, blamed technological issues.)

Until recently, LaMarca was heavily outrunning Collum in fundraising. But in June, hedge fund manager and big-time Democratic donor S. Donald Sussman gave Collum $200,000. In the latest filings, LaMarca had $301,000, while Collum reported $357,843.

Polling suggests a tight race: A Democratic-funded survey in early August gave Collum a two-point edge, though LaMarca claims his internal polling shows him up nine points. Collum calls the race a "litmus test" for whether a first-time, progressive candidate can carry a traditionally red district.

"If I can do this, if I can flip this seat, I think it shows that the blue wave is legitimate," she says, "and that this sort of grassroots effort can result in a real win — and that people are hungry for it."

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell often brings her family along for canvassing.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell often brings her family along for canvassing.
Photo by Michael Campina

As peacocks roamed his huge front lawn, Michael Wanek gripped a microphone. The slim 46-year-old clad in a "Resist" T-shirt, shorts, and Crocs summoned his preschool-aged daughter.

"Why are we having a concert for Debbie?" he asked, kneeling and holding out the mike.

"So the president isn't anymore," the little girl offered, missing a word or two in her anti-Trump line. Then, at her dad's prompting, she started a chant: "No gusta Trump!"

Wanek joined in as Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and a small crowd clapped along with them. Then he and his rock band took the stage, swapping the lyrics "We will rock you" with "We will vote you out."

The Homestead fundraiser came at the tail end of another long Saturday on the trail for the congressional hopeful, who'd spent hours meeting Florida Keys Democrats, speaking on a Haitian radio show, and canvassing Key Largo with her husband and their ten- and 13-year-old children.

"We must win," Mucarsel-Powell had told the group in the Keys earlier. "There's no other alternative. Every single value that we hold dear to us as Americans is being threatened every single day by this administration."

As Democrats across the nation hope for a massive blue wave this fall, Mucarsel-Powell is exactly the kind of candidate the national party is backing. A bilingual speaker with a compelling backstory, she's running against an incumbent who should be one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress, and she's received big infusions of cash from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

But all of that is meaningless unless she can persuade local voters to back her over incumbent Rep. Carlos Curbelo — a task that recent polling suggests will be tougher than national Dems had hoped.

The 47-year-old was born in Ecuador and immigrated with her mother and sisters to the States when she was 14. The family settled in Southern California, where Debbie worked at a doughnut shop to help pay the bills. She later studied political science at Pitzer College and earned a master's degree in international political economy at Claremont University.

After finishing school, she moved to Miami to be closer to her older sister. She found work in nonprofits, first as associate director of development for corporate and individual giving at Zoo Miami and later as director of development at Florida International University and senior vice president of development at Jackson Health Foundation. She met her husband, attorney Robert Powell, during a party for a group she'd organized to support the zoo.

In early 2016, Mucarsel-Powell contacted Ruth's List, which recruits Democratic women to run for office in Florida, hoping to join its executive committee. Instead, they asked her to run for state Senate.

"I told them: 'You're crazy,'" she says. "And one of the things that they told me, which I'm never going to forget, was anytime you tell any guy to run for anything, whether they have experience or not, they always think they're ready; they always think they're qualified. And it's always the women that question it."

Mucarsel-Powell ended up losing that race by 8 percent to GOP candidate Anitere Flores in a newly redrawn district. But the election was tighter than expected against the longtime Republican politician.

A little over a year later, she jumped back in — this time by challenging Curbelo. The congressman's vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which provides coverage to 100,000 people in the district, convinced her to run, she says. "That was the moment I knew I had to do something," she told the group in the Keys.

Democrats believe the seat is winnable because District 26 went for Hillary Clinton by 16 points in the 2016 presidential race, even as Curbelo won reelection by 12 points. The party named Mucarsel-Powell to its "Red to Blue" program, which aims to flip vulnerable GOP seats.

But she hasn't had the smoothest campaign. In July, the Daily Beast reported that her husband had served as general counsel for businesses linked to a Ukrainian oligarch accused of sponsoring contract killings. Over two years, according to Mucarsel-Powell's personal financial disclosure report, one of the firms tied to Ihor Kolomoisky paid Powell $700,000.

The story quoted Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who focuses on Russia and Ukraine, as calling the connections "highly suspicious." The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports Republican House candidates, quickly seized on the controversy by cutting an ad deeming it a "shocking scandal."

Her campaign has blasted the issue as an attempt by the Curbelo campaign to distract voters from his record.

"I've worked hard my entire life, from a doughnut shop cashier at 15 to my time at FIU," Mucarsel-Powell says. "Carlos Curbelo's false and desperate claim that someone else subsidizes me just shows how out of touch he is with working women. He'd rather mislead voters than explain why he helped write a Republican tax law that would give his family a $100,000 handout."

On the trail, she's focused on portraying Curbelo — who declares himself a moderate — as a hard-core Trump loyalist, noting he's voted with the president 82 percent of the time. She's pointed in particular to his votes to repeal the ACA and to pass the GOP tax bill. Her platform is built on improving access to health care, fighting climate change, and fixing the nation's immigration system.

Like many Democrats this election cycle, she's also made gun control a signature issue. She shares her own experience with gun violence — the shooting death of her father in Ecuador when she was 24 — with voters along the way.

Curbelo is ahead on fundraising, with more than $3.7 million compared to Mucarsel-Powell's $1.9 million. And the DCCC's own polling this month found Curbelo running seven points ahead of her. But the Dems point to one bit of silver lining: After voters were given basic biographical information about the two candidates, the race was tied.

"I realize and understand that there's a lot of cynicism out there and people just don't trust any elected officials — with reason," Mucarsel-Powell says. "And I want them to get to know who I am, the work that I've done, why I'm running, and what I stand for."

At a bustling coffee shop in Coconut Grove, Mary Barzee Flores leans across the table and declares that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is on the wrong side of every issue that matters to Florida's 25th Congressional District. She runs through the list: immigration, health care, gun control.

"He needed to be challenged," says Barzee Flores, whose gold nameplate necklace reads, "La Jueza" — the Judge. "He needs to be challenged, he needs to go, and I'm the one who's gonna take him out."

In a district that's been easily held by Diaz-Balart over multiple terms, Barzee Flores is trying to hammer him on issues that could make him vulnerable in November and drawing national attention by sharing her own #MeToo story in an early campaign ad. It's the first time in years that Miami-Dade's most Republican-leaning district has seen a strong Democratic challenger.

The 55-year-old lifelong Miamian was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital and grew up a few blocks from the Flagler Dog Track. Her father worked at a bait-and-tackle store called Fisherman's Paradise, while her mother, a nurse, stayed home. When Barzee Flores was in high school, her dad died, plunging the family into poverty and shaping her eventual views on health care.

At the University of Miami, she charted a course far from politics, studying classical music in hopes of becoming a conductor. She only went to law school after a professor told her she would need another degree to be taken seriously as a woman in the professional music world. But she found she loved the law, and dropped her orchestral dreams to become a public defender, then a judge, then a defense attorney. Along the way, she met her husband, Hector Flores, and the couple had two children.

In 2015, President Barack Obama nominated Barzee Flores for a lifetime federal judgeship. But Sen. Marco Rubio, who had initially signed off on the nomination, suddenly blocked her appointment. He pointed to donations she'd made years earlier to the ACLU and Emily's List.

Barzee Flores never got to take her place on the federal bench — and after Trump's election, she knew that dream was even less likely.

"When this guy got elected president, like a lot of folks — maybe especially like a lot of women — I woke up that next day and thought, What the heck am I going to do?" she says.

She got her answer when Emily's List, which backs Democratic women, reached out. In campaign ads soon after she announced her candidacy last July, she talked about being groped as a teenager by a manager while working a late-night shift at Pizza Hut. She also called out Rubio as "a guy on a power trip." After first running for the District 27 vacancy created by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's retirement, she switched races in May to challenge Diaz-Balart instead.

Unlike Ros-Lehtinen's blue-leaning seat, District 25 was carried by Trump by two points. Most thought the seat, with its well-known incumbent from a political dynasty, would likely remain red.

But the race has tightened this summer, thanks in part to missteps by Diaz-Balart.

In July, New Times reported that Diaz-Balart had not only taken more direct contributions from the NRA than any other congressman from Florida, but also had accepted $1,000 from the group after the Parkland shooting. Diaz-Balart was roasted online by prominent gun-reform advocates such as Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

An internal poll released that month showed Barzee Flores with a three-point lead after voters were informed of his stance on guns.

Then, in the wake of Florida's red tide emergency, Diaz-Balart was hit for another toxic campaign donor: Big Sugar. As the algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee grew to disastrous proportions between June and July, Diaz-Balart accepted $27,200 from the sugar industry.

On August 10, he took more heat when New Times reported on a photograph of him posing with a local member of the alt-right Proud Boys, who are classified as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center and regularly show up to white-supremacist rallies around the country.

Diaz-Balart still has a fundraising edge, with $1.7 million to Barzee Flores' $1.2 million. But his recent spending on a bizarre attack ad targeting her husband for representing accused arms dealers in court has only fueled speculation that he sees her as a real threat.

"When folks in this district are informed about where Mario is on the issues that are important to all of us, and when they meet me and hear where I am on these issues," Barzee Flores says, "I'm confident they're going to vote me in and him out."

Next week, female candidates across Florida will face their first major test: the August 28 primary. Though Collum and Barzee Flores are running unopposed and Mucarsel-Powell is widely seen as the likely winner against an underfunded primary rival, many other races feature multiple women battling to represent their party in November.

No race is arguably more competitive than District 27, which includes most of Miami as well as Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Little Havana. After Ros-Lehtinen's retirement, most experts believe the Democrats have a clear path to a new seat in Congress, and the crowded primary includes both Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and former University of Miami president Donna Shalala, who's viewed as the frontrunner.

Farther north, two women are battling for the Democratic nod to challenge GOP Rep. Brian Mast in District 18. Attorney and former Obama official Lauren Baer has the backing of the national party, but Navy veteran Pam Keith, who is also a lawyer, is running a grassroots campaign with a passionate volunteer base and nods from major figures such as civil rights activist Shaun King. If Baer wins, she'd be the first woman in a same-sex marriage elected to Congress, while Keith, who is black, would join the still-underrepresented ranks of women of color in Washington.

At the state level, Cindy Polo, a stay-at-home mom who touts she's "#notapolitician," is running against Miami Dade College professor Rick Tapia for the chance to oust Republican Manny Diaz in House District 103. Former lobbyist and attorney Nikki Fried, a Miami native, faces off against Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter and environmental advocate Roy David Walker for Commissioner of Agriculture, a position held since 2001 by a Republican man.

Some early research suggests progressive women are winning. FiveThirtyEight analyzed the 138 already-decided Democratic primaries that included at least one man and one woman and found that — all things being equal — being a woman has been worth an extra 10 percentage points at the polls so far.

Will that translate into a wave of new women in D.C. and statehouses such as Tallahassee? That remains to be seen, but it's worth noting that a similar wave happened in 1992, driven by televised images of all-male senators grilling Anita Hill over her sexual harassment accusations against Clarence Thomas. A record 251 women entered federal races that year. But with 47 women snagging seats in the House and five winning in the Senate, the gains were smaller than many hoped. And today, women make up only 20 percent of Congress.

"If democracy is ruled by the people, then the people should be ruling — and not just half the people," says Louise Davidson-Schmich, a professor of political science at the University of Miami.

But Davidson-Schmich says there's good reason to push for more women in power beyond simple representation.

"Where we have more women in elected office or where there's more gender balance representation... citizens tend to have a higher trust in government," she says. "We get political outcomes that better reflect what the citizenry wants."

Whatever happens in next week's primaries and in November, this year's historic number of women candidates have already made a mark. They've challenged the old ideas of who can run for office and how, says Sinzdak of the Center for American Women and Politics. She points to candidates embracing their roles as mothers and speaking frankly about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment and what it's like to be a woman on the campaign trail.

"We're seeing more and more women sharing their personal narratives of what it's like to be a woman in this country and why it is important to run," Sinzdak says. "We're seeing that shaping how people view candidates."

Research shows that one of the biggest hurdles to getting more women in office is that women are less likely to feel qualified to run. Once they're in the race, they're just as likely to win as men. So the fact that an unprecedented number of women are running represents a major sea change.

The pink wave is already here.

"It's momentous in and of itself that we have a lot more women candidates running," says FIU's DePalo, "because that means more women are stepping forward and raising their hand and saying, 'My voice matters.' And I think that in and of itself is hugely valuable."

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