Thursday, August 12, 2010

From the August 2010 edition of Poder 

Open Seat Takeover 
Voters in the FL-25 August primary will have seen a lot of stretching before the final stretch this fall

by Kirk Nielsen

Florida’s District 25, which spans from a Miami suburb on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf, has always involved a bit of a stretch.

FL-25 originated from an inside political job that stretched the boundaries of public service credibility. Mario Diaz-Balart (who was a Democrat in the 1980s before switching to the GOP) chaired the Republican-controlled redistricting committee that tailored FL-25 to his political needs in 2002. Thanks to a border containing an electorate of 43 percent Republicans, 35 percent Democrats, and 21 percent independents, Diaz-Balart became FL-25’s first representative that November, easily beating Democrat Annie Betancourt. One now-classic District 25 disconnect that year occurred when Betancourt called the U.S. embargo against Cuba an “outdated policy” that Congress should reconsider; just for that, Diaz-Balart called her soft on terrorism. Perhaps it was that kind of fear-mongering, perhaps the hundreds of millions of federal taxpayer dollars that Diaz-Balart garnered for South Florida, that helped him easily win reelection thrice. His margin of victory thinned the last time, though, as Bush Republicanism waned, Obamaism boomed, and Democrat Joe Garcia came within six points of beating him in 2008.

Of course, that slim margin had nothing to do with Diaz-Balart’s decision to jump to District 21 this year, to try to fill the seat his brother Lincoln chose to vacate after 20 years. Rather, it was Mario’s love for Broward County, at least in part. “This is a natural move for me,” he explained in a press release announcing his decision to abandon FL-25 after four terms. “As the only Broward native in the U.S. House of Representatives, I look forward to the opportunity of representing Broward’s residents.” He lamented he would no longer represent people in Collier County and southern Miami-Dade, but noted his brother’s district offered the “privilege” of serving such areas as Hialeah, Miami Lakes, and Westchester (where high percentages of Cuban-American Republican voters reside).

The disconnects are already on display in this year’s District 25 race. The Republican frontrunner, Florida House member David Rivera, casts himself as a small government, fiscal conservative, even though he spent most of the 1990s in the depths of a federal agency, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, as a special assistant to the director. Since then the OCB has overseen expenditures of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on Radio & TV Martí, whose operations congressional and inspector general investigations have repeatedly determined to be ineffective, wasteful, and at times fraudulent.

Another insider issue is causing him greater contortions. One of Rivera’s GOP rivals, Paul Crespo, and Garcia have both accused him of stretching the bounds of a law prohibiting Florida legislators from soliciting campaign donations while the legislature is in session. The ban is supposed to keep lawmakers free of money’s corrupting influence while they deliberate public matters. Rivera, who chairs the House budget committee in Tallahassee, raised an impressive $702,660 for his District 25 bid during this year’s session. He admitted that significant sums came from lobbyists and their clients, then cited an exemption allowing such donations for federal races.

All that’s a deplorable commentary on America’s pay-to-play political system, recently reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, given the million-plus dollars needed to win a U.S. House seat nowadays, it’s something of a stretch to believe that Crespo, Garcia, or anyone running would have declined all that corporate cash had it come their way.

More elasticity is certainly in store for the District 25 primary. How will Rivera fit his party’s simplistic anti-tax, anti-government message over, say, the state-funded $50 million Jackson Health System bailout he has touted on his campaign blog to win political points in Miami-Dade County? Can Paul Crespo get more over-inflated than his pledges to “repeal the obscene, budget-busting, government takeover of our health care system” and “ to restore our Constitution as the cornerstone of our political system”? Can Joe Garcia convince voters that he’s a populist anti-tax Democrat, not an Obama Administration political appointee?

The most startling District 25 disconnects so far, however, come from Marili Cancio, another Republican in the race, though she sounds like a sensible liberal. “Taxes and government have important roles in our country -- especially for infrastructure, defense, government, and education,” she states on her website. “Let’s make sure our tax system is not wasteful, but encourages investment, jobs and protection where we can feel a difference and see results.” She also notes that the health care reform bill pushed through by Democrats contains “good benefits,” such as mandatory care for pre-existing conditions and “longer coverage for our children.”

Maybe that’s not such a stretch.

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