House 112 rematch: Can conservative activist win in historically Democratic district?

Red tide’s arrival in Miami-Dade brings up painful memories for Rosy Palomino.

About 10 years ago, the longtime Coral Gables community activist lost two unborn twins, and nearly her own life, after contracting a deadly toxic algae infection while swimming in Biscayne Bay.

“I’m a survivor,” she said recently.

As the environmental crisis hit both South Florida coasts, Palomino said higher awareness and public warnings about the potential health costs of interacting with red tide need to be ramped up.

Yet she also believes that the problem must be dealt with as a “seasonal” one.

“The state should normalize the red tide crisis like they do every frequent ocean or waterfront phenomenon,” she said. “Once we start treating red tide like we do other normal, seasonal dangers such as sharks or rip currents, the state will minimize the impact of red tide.”

Her opponent, 37-year-old Democrat incumbent Nick Duran, sees the red tide crisis as a symptom of something more profound.

“It’s gotten worse,” he said. “We know it’s in nature, but it’s also exacerbated by humans and our own pollution, so we have to ask what are we doing to cut down on that … It starts at the top.”

Palomino, a 49-year-old Republican, is taking her second shot against Duran to represent Florida House District 112 after losing to him in 2016.

This time, Palomino arguably faces longer odds.

Duran is politically well connected: His father-in-law, Mike Abrams, is the former chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and a former state lawmaker. (Abrams writes an occasional column for the Herald’s opinion page.) Duran has the backing of his predecessor in the District 112 seat, State Senator Jose-Javier Rodriguez, as well as former President Barack Obama.

Duran has raised more than $148,000 this election cycle, compared with the approximately $16,000 Palomino has received. Among Duran’s largest corporate donors are private prison contractor GEO Group, payday loan company Amscot, three major drug companies, and Duke Energy. (Duran says he issued a check for more than double the amount to a prison-rights group after facing criticism for accepting the GEO Group donation.)

Palomino said Duran may be too well connected, to the point that he has neglected the needs of the district, which encompasses Key Biscayne, Brickell, Little Havana and parts of Coral Gables. Duran is executive director of the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, a 501(c)(3) group designed to provide free medical services to disadvantaged communities. The group enjoys an annual state grant to provide services. Duran says he has taken proper steps to ensure there is no conflict of interest between his work as a legislator and nonprofit activities.

To an outsider, the most pressing issue for District 112, which abuts Biscayne Bay, would seem to be water quality, sea-level-rise and resiliency. In Key Biscayne, for instance, there are already signs home prices are falling as buyers come to the realization that, in a worst-case scenario, their properties could literally be under water in the coming decades.

But both candidates rank a variety of other issues as equally pressing. Palomino said that, if elected, the first bill she would introduce would focus on steering more state dollars to improving quality of life for the elderly. Duran, meanwhile, says the state must play a more active role in healthcare outcomes. The first bill he served as lead sponsor on that passed into law reformed the way the state manages prescription drugs.

Many argue that a state legislator’s most important role is how they will vote on the priorities set by their parties and adhere to the governor’s agenda. Both candidates said they support their parties’ respective gubernatorial nominees. Among the top current statewide issues, in the wake of both the Pulse Nightclub and Parkland school shooting, is gun control.

Palomino, a teacher, says she is against arming them. She says the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) must be updated to include warning signs about mental health. Asked how she would respond if confronted by a lobbyist from the NRA, a group with a notoriously strong grip on Tallahassee’s gun voting patterns, she demurred, saying it would depend on what was being asked of her. When she ran in 2016, Palomino told the Miami Herald editorial board that, in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, that had more club patrons been armed, the tragedy “would have been more limited.” The Herald endorsed Duran that year.

Palomino clarified her Pulse comments in an email.

“The manner in which I discussed the Pulse nightclub massacre was a little different than the other examples because it was a hate crime targeting the LGBT community,” she said. “I was very upset when I described the lack of security precautions by the Pulse nightclub management [not the patrons necessarily].”

She said she believes in the Second Amendment.

Earlier this year, Duran voted in favor of the gun-control bill that became law in Tallahassee that would allow some teachers and staff to be armed. He also co-sponsored legislation to curb assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; these bills died in committee. Duran also believes in closing the gun show loophole.

“We’ve passed great legislation that was monumental in moving the needle forward,” he said. “So now we need to have a serious conversations about next steps: background checks, assault weapons in community — they’re bringing it up to me, it is what parents are coming up to me about, saying ‘What else can we do.’ Everyone is happy with what passed, but more must be done.”

The two candidates take widely divergent views on the Affordable Care Act. Palomino said she would support Ron DeSantis’ weakening of it. “Legislative leaders were never going to accept Medicaid expansion under the heavy-handed terms of the Obama Administration,” Palomino said. “Should it have been implemented, it would have caused an even worse financial hardship than exists now.”

As state director of Enroll America, an Obama Administration campaign to increase access to ObamaCare, Duran maintains his faith in the federal program.

“I want to see it [ObamaCare] implemented in its full-fledged form,” he said. “Marketplace and Medicaid expansion, without states thwarting its efforts, is something that can have an immense impact for the state.”

Duran says he got into politics as someone who believes government can solve problems—but admits he ran into his own. While attending the University of Florida. At the age of 22, he was arrested for resisting an officer without violence, unlawful liquor possession, and having an open house party with drugs or alcohol at which minors were present. He then violated his probation for failing to complete his community service. He pleaded no contest to both.

“I was in college and did stupid stuff,” he said. “I’ve been humbled by [these] mistakes. They brought it up in campaign mailers the last go around, and it’s something I’ve had to say to my kids. I’m here now, and I’m a professional.” Duran remains in good standing according to the Florida Bar Association.

Palomino says her first political experience involved government overreach: When she was 8, her parents’ house was seized by the government through eminent domain.

“It taught me government can not always be your friend,” she said.