With some residents still in the dark and massive piles of debris dominating the landscape, the candidates seeking to replace a disgraced state senator spent the weekend scrambling to drum up support before a special election Tuesday in Miami-Dade County.
Republican Jose Felix Diaz and Democrat Annette Taddeo are vying for the Florida Senate seat vacated five months ago by former Sen. Frank Artiles, who resigned in the midst of this spring’s legislative session after a profanity-laced and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.
Diaz, who resigned from a state House seat to run for the Senate and is known almost universally as “Pepi,” spent much of Saturday outside an early voting site in Southwest Miami with Cuban-born retired Major League Baseball pitcher Camilo Pascual.
“We’re gigantic baseball fans,” Diaz told The News Service of Florida as the 83-year-old Pascual signed baseballs.
Taddeo joined black pastors and churchgoers Sunday for a “Souls to the Polls” barbecue as a DJ blared tunes at near-deafening levels in the background.
“This is an opportunity to unite everyone” in the district she said after being convinced to sit in an air-conditioned car for a brief interview.
The competitive matchup in Senate District 40, which voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race but also elected the Republican Artiles, is viewed by many as a harbinger of how Democrats might fare in upcoming elections.
It’s also seen as a litmus test for President Donald Trump, who is lauded by many of the district’s Cuban-American voters for chilling his predecessor’s accord with Cuba but is denounced by other Hispanics for his hard-line stance on immigration, especially policies involving undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, known as “Dreamers.”
But Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in the Keys and Southwest Florida little more than two weeks ago, threw a monkey-wrench into the contest, temporarily putting campaign activities on hold after the massive storm knocked out power, internet, cable and mail delivery to much of the district.
Florida Democrats asked Gov. Rick Scott to postpone the election for two weeks. He refused, saying the Miami-Dade elections supervisor had decided the election should take place as scheduled.
“It’s disappointing that it’s harder to get people out to vote when there’s still people without power,” Taddeo said, pointing out that some streetlights en route to Sunday’s event at the Community Bible Baptist Church were still not functioning.
“So it is harder. We have had every roadblock possible put on us. And I still feel we will prevail. Because, again, it’s the people that say we want something different. They’re upset about the same-old, same-old,” said Taddeo, who previously made two unsuccessful bids for Congress and was U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s running-mate in his failed attempt to return to the governor’s mansion in 2014.
Hispanics make up 69 percent of the district’s voting-age population, whites 20 percent and blacks about 7 percent, according to the latest Census data.
The swing district, redrawn as a result of a redistricting process that took effect with last year’s election, is almost evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents, with Democrats having a slight voter-registration edge.
The race for the open seat has a whopping tab estimated at about $2 million, including spending by the candidates and political committees affiliated with the Senate hopefuls.
The match has been in keeping with the bare-knuckles Miami-Dade political arena.
Backers of Diaz have painted Taddeo as a communist sympathizer who supports the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The FARC kidnapped Taddeo’s father, who fought in World War II for the U.S., prompting her family to flee Colombia when she was a child.
On Sunday, an internet search seeking information about Miami early voting sites resulted in an ad declaring that Taddeo “is a vocal supporter of socialist regimes.”
“Stop her. Vote early,” the ad advised, before redirecting users to the Miami-Dade elections site.
Elections officials contacted Google and asked it to pull the ad, an elections-office spokeswoman said.
Taddeo called her opposition’s tactics “below the belt.”
Meanwhile, Taddeo and her supporters characterize Diaz as a lobbyist and “insider,” and have repeatedly linked the Republican to Trump. Diaz was a contestant on Trump’s television show, “The Apprentice,” and supported Trump last year.
“There’s no doubt that Donald Trump is extremely unpopular in this district,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist who is running Taddeo’s campaign.
While the Trump connection may have motivated Democratic voters in the district, Diaz’s affiliation with the president may have had the same effect on the GOP side, as evidenced by interviews with a handful of voters Sunday at the West Dade Regional Library.
The early voting site — where Diaz’s campaign dished out arroz campesino from a giant cauldron, pastelitos and cold drinks to visitors who lined up to pose for selfies with Pascual — is in the heart of the district’s Republican enclave, according to locals.
Speaking mostly in Spanish, Elia Lopez said she “for sure” voted for Diaz.
“I like him. He’s a very, very, very nice person,” Lopez, 78, said.
Her friend Adelaida Rosa, 84, also supported Diaz. Both women — along with Rosa’s son — said that part of Diaz’s appeal was that he supported Trump.
But it is Diaz’s reputation “of working across the aisle” and “for being fair and honest,” not the Trump connection, that is his greatest appeal, said J.C. Planas, a former state representative and close friend of Diaz who is also the candidate’s campaign attorney.
Diaz, accompanied by his father and grandmother — who introduced herself as the “abuela” — at the early voting site Saturday, said he’s run his latest campaign more like an intimate House race than a traditional Senate contest.
“We want people to feel that they’re part of our family. And they really are,” he said, shortly after bringing a plate of the rice dish to a Taddeo campaign volunteer standing alone under a tent nearby the Diaz encampment.
Meanwhile, Taddeo supporters, including workers provided by the Florida Democratic Party, ramped up get-out-the vote efforts, knocking on more than 13,000 doors Saturday.
Taddeo’s team was buoyed after closing the gap in mail-in ballots, where Republican returns at one point were up by nearly 7 percentage points, to a less than 2 percent difference on Monday.
The tightening returns point to what is expected to be a close result on Election Day.
For the black voters who attended Sunday’s after-church rally, the election is especially significant.
Pastors who participated in Taddeo’s “souls to the polls” event were among those who demanded the resignation of Artiles, who ousted former Sen. Dwight Bullard, a black Democrat, in the November election after the district’s lines were redrawn.
Artiles stepped down in April after calling Sen. Audrey Gibson, a black Democrat from Jacksonville, “girl,” a “bitch,” and a “f—ing ass—.” Artiles also reportedly used the word “niggers” or “niggas,” though he contended that he did not direct the word at anyone in particular.
“We have people in office now that’s mucho loco. For us to make a change, we have to stand up and vote,” Dolores Martin, 80, said, sitting beneath a tent overpowered by the smell of barbecued ribs and chicken.
Taddeo has visited Martin’s church almost weekly, she said.
“She doesn’t just come because she wants our votes. She comes with love in her heart. She’s going to win,” Martin predicted.