Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami attorney who has long pushed to address climate change in the Florida Legislature, is facing a challenge from Latinas for Trump founder Ileana Garcia as he seeks reelection in November.
The battle to represent Senate District 37, though very much a local race, is borrowing from national politics as Garcia, a Cuban-American Republican, tries to knock off Rodriguez, a progressive Democrat, with tactics that mirror President Donald Trump’s messaging playbook.
Senate Republican leaders have also spent about $64,000 to help Garcia target the seat, which Rodriguez won in 2016 after defeating former Republican Sen. Miguel Díaz de la Portilla, a member of Miami-Dade’s powerfulCuban-American political family, with a three-point advantage.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders are fiercely defending Rodriguez as they try to make gains in the upper chamber in November, by pumping about $160,000 in resources into Rodriguez’s campaign to help with polling, research, campaign staff and political consulting.
Keeping Rodriguez in his seat is a key priority for Senate Democrats, who are trying to flip three seats in November to reach a 20-20 split in the chamber, a goal that could be a long shot this year. In 2018, Rodriguez dropped out of a Miami congressional race to help Democrats’ chances of gaining ground in Tallahassee.
“My first obligation is to protect my incumbent members. Sen. Rodriguez is one of our most valuable, intelligent members,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat leading his caucus’ 2020 campaigns. “We need him in Tallahassee. We are not taking that race for granted at all.”
With that background, the battle for the Hispanic-majority district — which includes Coral Gables, Pinecrest, Key Biscayne, downtown Miami and coastal communities south to Cutler Bay — is shaping up to be a tight race.
ON THE ISSUES
Garcia, a former television personality who declined interviews with the Miami Herald, is branding Rodriguez as a Democrat with a “far-left agenda,” which she broadly characterized in a statement as one that would increase taxes, expand the role of government and “take us down a socialist path.”
“Here are the choices: Do we defund the police and walk away from American values? Do we choose socialism and chaos out of fear? … For me the path is clear,” Garcia says in campaign ads that have run in English and Spanish.
Garcia has been endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said that because she is the daughter of Cuban exiles, she “knows firsthand the failed promises of the socialist policies being pushed by today’s Democrats.”
Trying to cast political opponents as extreme or socialist sympathizers is a common political tactic for both parties in Miami, which is home to hundreds of thousands of residents who fled Cuba and South and Central American countries led by authoritarian regimes.
Rodriguez, a Harvard-trained attorney, has pushed back against the attacks, saying “phantom political problems” are the only ammunition Garcia has against him. He said the attacks don’t represent him as a candidate or the issues he sees as most concerning for the district.
“It’s strange to hear in a state race or even in a local race, bringing this rhetoric from Washington,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview Thursday. “Trying to bring the president’s rhetoric into this, it just doesn’t fit. Constituents are actually dealing with the real world.”
If reelected, Rodriguez said he will push for measures that address climate change and sea level rise in the region, overhaul the state’s unemployment system — including raising the maximum benefits to $500 per week — as well as push to offer financial relief to pandemic-battered small businesses.
The Miami state senator says pushing for measures that address climate change, including how it impacts infrastructure and public health, will continue to be one of his priorities.
Rodriguez not only talks about it — he wears it. For three legislative sessions in a row, he has worn rubber boots with the slogan ActOnClimateFl to raise awareness about the threats climate change poses to the state.
During this year’s legislative session, Rodriguez achieved part of that slogan. Along with state Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, Rodriguez championed legislation that explicitly acknowledges climate change’s threats to the state and requires state-financed projectson the coast to take sea level rise into account before starting to build a structure.
DeSantis signed the bill into law in June, and it went into effect July 1.
Looking forward, as a member of the minority party in the Senate, Rodriguez said he wants to make sure Democrats hold the DeSantis administration accountable for how it has handled the pandemic.
“Republican leaders in the Legislature want to pretend like everything’s fine and that there’s no constitutional issues with what the governor is doing when operating taxpayer spending money without the Legislature weighing in at all,” Rodriguez said. “We need to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
If elected, Garcia would help Senate Republicans maintain their majority in the upper chamber. And she wants to prioritize fixes to the state’s unemployment system, advocate for funding for Miami-Dade public schools and bolster school choice programs.
Garcia, who worked as deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration, said constituents are tired of “the politicians that spend their time complaining at press conferences but getting nothing done.”
Democrats are outnumbered in the Legislature, and they have repeatedly pitched pandemic proposals during press conferences in recent weeks. Democrat-led proposals are often a vehicle to frame the debate, but most have had little success in a legislative body dominated by Republicans in recent decades.
“I offer a fresh perspective and commitment to solve the challenges in the district, including in a bipartisan manner for concrete solutions,” Garcia said.
THE STATE OF THE RACE
Like most legislative races, the battle to represent District 37 will be heavily influenced by the pandemic and the presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
In 2016, Rodriguez won the Hispanic-majority district with a three-point advantage over Diaz de la Portilla, a significantly smaller margin than the 21-point advantage Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by in the district that same year.
As of this year’s August primary, the district’s 276,781 registered voters were split about 30% Republican, 36% Democrat, and 31% with no party affiliation, state records show.
Rodriguez and Garcia will need to appeal to all those no-party affiliation voters to win in November. Alex Rodriguez, a no-party affiliation candidate whose campaign has raised no money since June, will also be on the ballot.
With less than a month until Election Day, recent polling suggests Rodriguez and Garcia in a tight race, but Democrats remain confident the incumbent senator will win.
“Polls are just a snapshot in time,” Farmer said. “We are taking a fresh look at it. He’s not lacking resources from us. I still feel pretty good about that seat and that race.”
On the final stretch of the campaign, Rodriguez is far outspending Garcia. He has spent more than $320,000 through his campaign and affiliated political committee, Initiative for Florida’s Future, during the first two weeks of September.
By comparison, Garcia has spent $8,971 from money raised through her campaign and her affiliated political committee, No More Socialism, in that same time period.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he believes Garcia will win for the same reason he thinks Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, will win the hotly contested Senate District 39 seat.
“She is working very hard, and she will be able to get some accomplishments done that probably left the district unsatisfied for the last four years,” Simpson said in an interview Wednesday.