Trump Effect Takes Hold Of South Florida Politics

May 25, 2018

Donald Trump is reshaping South Florida politics.


Longtime Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen decided not to run for re-election in a district that increasingly leans Democratic.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro resigned his position on the county commission to run as a Republican in the congressional district. That triggered a special election for his former seat with the county.

This week, Barreiro’s wife Zoraida and political newcomer Eileen Higgins were the top two vote-getters. They will face off in a runoff election next month.

In the rush to fill Ros-Lehtinen’s seat, David Richardson is running in a crowded Democratic field. That leaves his Florida House of Representatives seat open – and Michael Grieco wants it. Grieco just finished probation after pleading no contest to criminally violating campaign finance laws.

WLRN’s Jessica Bakeman and Tom Hudson look at the Trump effect on local politics, speaking with David Smiley, political reporter for the Miami Herald, and Patricia Mazzei, Miami bureau chief for The New York Times.

WLRN: Do you see Donald Trump in these three races?

DAVID SMILEY: We're definitely going to see him in the special election for Miami-Dade County. Eileen Higgins is backed by the Democratic Party. She's a former Peace Corps director. And already in the general election in which it was Higgins versus three Republican candidates – this is a nonpartisan race – but Higgins' campaign put out a mailer comparing two of her opponents who are from well-known families to the dynasties. The mailers show Donald Trump and two of his children. 

Bruno Barreiro's wife Zoraida Barriero is on the ballot in the runoff. Higgins has already made clear that she's going to do more comparing of Zoraida and Bruno, who supported Trump here in Miami, where Trump is not particularly well liked among the Cuban community. They're going to definitely do more comparing and contrasting in that race, even though it's nonpartisan.

It's a nonpartisan race, but that doesn't mean politics aren't involved. Patty, do you think we're going to see a blue wave here like we've seen in some special elections elsewhere?

PATRICIA MAZZEI: First of all, the idea that we would be talking about presidential politics in a county commission race is sort of mind-boggling. I think this week's result was surprising because Democrats have tended to underperform in local elections in Miami-Dade County. This is a county that is a blue county when it comes to presidential elections, but as we all know, at the local government level, it tends to be run by Republicans.

So, the idea that they have been getting organized enough to win special elections – they won the special state Senate seat last year; that they have Eileen Higgins in this position now. It is striking and notable. Whether it's going to be part of a blue wave – special elections give you hints, but they're just not big enough to tell you that something is going to happen at a larger state or national level.

Let me ask you about that "mind-boggling" part. Is any of that resonating with voters? Is there an attachment of presidential politics or Trump policies in District 5 in Miami-Dade County?

P.M.: To me, I compare it to when Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava ran. That race was against Lynda Bell who was the incumbent and a Republican in a nonpartisan seat. And the Republicans and Commissioner Bell at the time also accused Levine-Cava and her supporters of politicizing the race. What we have seen is that that worked for Democrats then because at the local level, Democrats have just not been very active in going to the polls. When they make it about state or national issues, they have found that that resonates with their activist base.

What I think we're going to see now is Republicans really going to bat for Zoraida Barreiro and groups who have local interests that are not really partisan but that, for example, involve who the next chair of the county commission is going to be. Those politics play out in these races from the different special interests at County Hall who want their preferred commissioner to be the next chairman or to have a committee or things like that. I think we're going to see people push back now that we're in the second round of this race.

This post was updated after the May 25, 2018 episode of The Florida Roundup.