By Mike Clary | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
In the 15 years he has represented the 21st Congressional District, which includes a swath of southwestern Broward County, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has been re-elected with little or no opposition.
But the Miami Republican could face a stiff challenge this fall from former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who is flush with campaign cash and reaping plenty of support from national Democratic Party leaders.
The latest political celebrity to appear on Martinez’s behalf is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who headlined a May 3 campaign event in the tony Cocoplum section of Coral Gables that raised money and the candidate’s spirits.
“I have to win the election in South Florida myself,” said Martinez, 59. “But if the district elects me, I’m going to have friends in Washington. I will have the ear of the leadership in Congress.”
Beyond deciding who will represent the district’s 640,000 residents, the November election also will gauge what some see as seismic changes in the politics of the Cuban-American community.
“We have seen for years that Miami and the Cuban-American community is changing,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington. “This election will be a test to see if that moderating opinion translates into a political result.”
A lawyer, Diaz-Balart, 53, is the scion of a political family prominent in pre-revolutionary Cuba. His father, Rafael, was a classmate of Fidel Castro whose friendship with the eventual Cuban leader ended when Diaz-Balart joined the government of Fulgencio Batista. Rafael Diaz-Balart’s younger sister, Mirta, Lincoln’s aunt, was married to Castro for several years.
In exile in Miami, Rafael Diaz-Balart encouraged the political aspirations of the oldest of his four sons, and both Lincoln and his younger brother Mario, who represents the 25th Congressional District, have become well-known for their fierce anti-Castro positions.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart supports the trade embargo on Cuba, and has championed tougher restrictions on family visits and sending cash to the island, arguing that remittances help prop up the communist-led government.
On Cuba, Martinez backs the decades-old embargo, but favors easing restrictions on family visits and financial support. And he blasts Diaz-Balart for having “nothing to show for his 15 years in Congress. Cuba, that’s all he talks about.”
Although Republicans still hold a majority in the district, Democrats are gaining in registered voters, and Florida International University surveys indicate that hard-line anti-Castroism may carry less clout with increasingly diverse Cuban-American voters than it once did.
Still, unseating an incumbent as entrenched as Diaz-Balart will be tough. In Cuban-American Miami, the name Diaz-Balart is iconic.
“He comes from a good family,” said Lidia Bruce, one of several older Cuban-Americans who turned out for a campaign volunteer breakfast in Pembroke Pines several weeks ago. “He has morals and values.”
As the summer and the election year heat up, questions of character are likely to be sounded repeatedly by the Diaz-Balart forces in a contest already off to a rancorous start.
In 1991, when mayor of Hialeah, Martinez was tried and convicted of extortion and racketeering charges. The conviction later was overturned on appeal, and two subsequent trials ended in hung juries.
Martinez has long insisted that the federal charges were politically motivated, instigated in 1989 by then-U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, whose wife, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was first running for Congress and fearing a challenge by Martinez. (Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart also face Democratic challengers Nov. 4.) Diaz-Balart insists he will run on his record, which includes getting federal funding to keep the U.S. Southern Command in South Florida and to build an Interstate 75 interchange at Pines Boulevard and Pembroke Road.
But, he added, “It’s going to be an intense race. [Martinez] is raising money, and he will have funds to throw dirt, which characterizes him.”
Responded Florida Democratic party spokesman Alejandro Miyar: “This is going to be a bloodbath. But Lincoln is vulnerable, and he doesn’t understand he’s going after a guy who has never lost a campaign, and knows how to win.”
Martinez remains a larger-than-life figure in working-class Hialeah, where the city hall is named after him. First elected mayor in 1981, he was returned to office eight times, including once when he was under indictment, and once after being sentenced to 10 years in prison.
His Hialeah loyalists say Martinez got things done: He fixed the streets, built housing for low-income seniors, and saw that the trash was collected on time. He helped design for his landlocked city a giant swimming pool with a wave machine after he saw something similar during a visit to Las Vegas.