Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R)
Florida 25th District
An interconnected sea of wetlands once covered 8.9 million acres of southern Florida, stretching from present-day Orlando to the peninsula’s southern tip. It was once a coherent ecosystem, a “river of grass” in which water moved slowly down a gentle slope to the ocean. It buffered plants and animals from meteorological extremes and provided different micro-environments for flora and fauna based on an inch or two of variation in elevation. It was long a dream of Florida’s white settlers to make it more useful, but for decades, this goal proved elusive. It took three attempts between 1915 and the late 1920s to build the Tamiami Trail from Miami to Tampa. To this day, it is one of only two roads that cross the South Florida interior from coast to coast. Over time, people managed to reshape the Everglades. In 1948, Congress approved the Central and South Florida Project, which authorized the construction of 1,000 miles of canals and 720 miles of levees to channel and drain the Everglades. Since then, about half of the original ecosystem has been turned over to agriculture and housing, and the amount of water discharged into the ocean has fallen by 70%.
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In recent years, Floridians have had second thoughts about taming the Everglades. In 2000, Congress passed a law to restore the land in 16 counties, authorizing $7.8 billion over 30 years. In 2002, President George W. Bush and his brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, signed an agreement to proceed. After a slow start, initial steps have included a huge storage reservoir and a safety valve to protect Lake Okeechobee and its dikes. In December 2008, the South Florida Water Management District approved Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposal to buy much of the land owned by U.S. Sugar Corp. around Lake Okeechobee for $1.35 billion, with most farming to be phased out within seven years. That would allow water to pass over land from the lake, through the Everglades, to the Gulf of Mexico. But the recession forced Crist to scale back the project to $533 million, with a 10-year option to buy the remaining acreage.
The 25th Congressional District of Florida sprawls almost all the way across this uninhabitable portion of South Florida, connecting population centers near, but not on, each of Florida’s two coasts. About 13% of its residents live in Collier County, in new housing wedged between decidedly upscale and artsy Naples and the wild Everglades, and in the farm town of Immokalee, where an estimated 80% of workers are illegal aliens. The large majority of the district’s residents live on the western and southern edges of metropolitan Miami, mostly close to the swamps. Here one can drive out on roads past the subdivisions and find strawberry, tomato, and citrus farms. The trees thin out, and then the road just ends where the Everglades begin.
The towns in the northern part of Miami-Dade are heavily Cuban and Latino—Hialeah Gardens, Tamiami, Kendale Lakes, South Miami Heights and Cutler Ridge. Farther south, the 25th takes in low-income agricultural areas along South Dixie Highway (U.S. 1), like Princeton and Naranja, as well as a few older tourist attractions like the Metrozoo, the Monkey Jungle and Coral Castle. Even further south is Homestead, which was leveled by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and has since been redeveloped with housing, shops, hospitals, parks and schools, plus a Coast Guard base. NASCAR has an annual race at the speedway. By 2007, Homestead was the fastest-growing town in Florida, with large Mexican and Cuban populations. Politically, this area leans Republican, thanks to the allegiance of its many Cuban Americans, though this is the least Cuban of the three South Florida districts that have Hispanic majorities.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R)
Elected: 2002, 4th term.
Born: Sept. 25, 1961, Ft. Lauderdale .
Education: U. of S. FL.
Family: Married (Tia); 1 child.
Elected office: FL House of Reps., 1988-92, 2000-02; FL Senate, 1992-00.
Professional Career: A.A., Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, 1985-88; Public relations executive.
The congressman from the 25th District is Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican first elected in 2002. The Diaz-Balart family history is intertwined with that of Fidel Castro and the rise of communism on the island nation of Cuba. His father, Rafael Lincoln Diaz-Balart, was the majority leader in pre-revolution Cuba’s House of Representatives. His uncle and grandfather also served in the Cuban House. His family is sometimes called the “Cuban Kennedys” and seems to have politics in its blood. The Diaz-Balarts fled Cuba in 1959, shortly after Castro took over and after their house was looted and burned while they were vacationing in Paris. His aunt was briefly Castro’s wife and is the mother of his only recognized child. One of Mario’s three older brothers is Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the representative from the 21st District, just to the east of the 25th. Mario Diaz-Balart, unlike Lincoln, was born in the United States after the family had resettled. Another brother is a television news anchorman for Telemundo and a fourth is an investment banker.
|Mario Diaz-Balart (R)||130,891||(53%)||($2,583,098)|
|Joe Garcia (D)||115,820||(47%)||($1,787,834)|
|Mario Diaz-Balart (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (58%), 2004 (100%), 2002 (65%)
Diaz-Balart dropped out of the University of South Florida at age 24 to work for former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, a Republican. In 1988, he was elected to the Florida House; four years later, at age 31, he became the youngest person ever elected to the state Senate. Diaz-Balart was named chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where he was a budget hawk. His 1995 call for state agencies to cut spending by 25% earned him the nickname “The Slasher”—a moniker he wore with pride. The eight-year term limit forced him from the state Senate in 2000, so he again ran for the Florida House and was elected.
No ordinary freshman, Diaz-Balart requested and received the chairmanship of the congressional redistricting committee. The resulting plan included a central Florida district tailored to state House Speaker Tom Feeney and a western Miami-Dade district tailored for Diaz-Balart. He coasted to victory over Democratic state Rep. Annie Betancourt, a former social worker and the widow of a Bay of Pigs veteran. Her campaign was underfinanced, and she remained largely unknown. With support from teachers and other unions, Diaz-Balart won 65%-35%.
In the House, his voting record has generally been more conservative than his brother Lincoln’s on economic and foreign policy, and he has been a moderate on cultural issues. He told the Naples Daily News in July 2008: “I’m not a laissez faire Republican. I don’t like government. It’s bloated, fat, and doesn’t work.” He co-sponsored a bill in 2007 to ban disaster-aid spending on puppet shows, dance lessons, yoga on the beach, and other entertainment. He has opposed oil drilling off Florida’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2008, as gas prices skyrocketed, he called for allowing commuters to write off part of the cost of gas to get to work.
Diaz-Balart organized the Congressional Hispanic Conference, a Republican alternative to the Democrats’ Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Diaz-Balart vocally opposed the Democratic proposal to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program because it was to be financed in part with a $3 tax on cigars. He said the tax would hurt South Florida-based cigar producers, an industry, he said, “that is almost entirely Hispanic.” With his brother and GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also of South Florida, he supported a bill to allow children of illegal immigrants to qualify for college. After the 2007 immigration debate in Congress, he said, “The tone of some Republicans was offensive to the vast majority of Hispanics.” Like his older brother, Mario Diaz-Balart favors maintaining the trade embargo on Cuba and the 2004 restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.
In 2006, Diaz-Balart was re-elected 58%-42%. Democrats believed that he and the other two Cuban-American Republicans from the Miami area were vulnerable. Younger Cuban-Americans are less focused on Castro, and many oppose the restrictions on travel and remittances. The number of non-Cuban Hispanics in the area also has been increasing, and in 2008, the Republican registration advantage fell almost to zero. In 2008, Diaz-Balart faced a serious challenge from Joe Garcia, the Miami-Dade County Democratic chairman and former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. Garcia opposed the restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. He criticized the Diaz-Balart brothers for focusing on Cuba rather than on gas prices and the crisis in housing foreclosures. “Their vision is vengeance, not justice,” Garcia said. “You’ve got to do something. We’re looking at very scary times.”
Diaz-Balart criticized Garcia for appearing at a New York fundraiser sponsored by Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, an opponent of the Cuba embargo, and called on him to return $14,000 in contributions Rangel had given him. He also ran an ad criticizing Garcia for opposing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and he repeatedly accused Garcia of hiding the names of small contributors, though they’re not required to be reported. Garcia raised and spent $1.8 million. Diaz-Balart raised $2 million and, drawing on unspent campaign funds, spent $2.6 million.
Diaz-Balart won 53%-47%, the narrowest of the three Cuban-American Republicans’ victories. He won 53% in Miami-Dade County and 54% in Collier County. Polling indicated that he carried Cubans as well as Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, who may have been motivated by a dislike of their countries’ left-wing governments. “When it comes to Cuban-Americans, it’s pretty clear where they are,” Diaz-Balart told the Miami Herald after the election.