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Newcomer Eileen Higgins rode a wave of support from the Democratic Party to win a slot in a runoff election to replace Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, edging out a former state senator in Tuesday’s District 5 primary to face Zoraida Barreiro, the former commissioner’s wife, in the showdown election next month.
About 90 minutes after polls closed at 7 p.m., Higgins was ahead with nearly 35 percent of the vote, followed by Barreiro at 33 percent. Former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla was in third with 27 percent, followed by former television actor Carlos Garin with less than 5 percent. Only three of the 60 precincts hadn’t reported their results.
With no candidate crossing the 50 percent threshold, the top two finishers advance to a June 19 run-off, setting up a four-week contest to decide who will represent a district that includes Little Havana, South Beach and parts of downtown Miami.
The results delivered a big win for local Democrats as party support for a first-time candidate helped push Higgins ahead of candidates with two well-known names in local politics. Strategists on both sides of the aisle portrayed the strong showing by the lone Democrat in the race as evidence that a “blue wave” that has lifted Democratic candidates in special elections since Donald Trump became president had landed in a Miami-Dade commission race, too.
“The advantage held by Republicans in Miami-Dade special elections for almost two decades seems to have evaporated overnight,” said Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a Republican campaign consultant who managed the 2016 reelection effort for Miami-Dade’s Republican mayor, Carlos Gimenez.
Tuesday’s results cap a nearly month-long contest to win a special election called after Bruno Barreiro resigned his commission seat to run in a Republican congressional primary. The winner can serve out the remaining two years in Barreiro’s final term of office, then be able to run for reelection twice before having to give up the seat under the county’s new two-term limit.
The election featured a clash between two well-known names in local politic. Bruno Barreiro served on the commission for 20 years. One Diaz de la Portilla brother, Miguel, has already served on the county commission and followed Alex in the state Senate; another, Renier, was also in the state Legislature and on the Miami-Dade school board.
As the only Democrat in the nonpartisan race, Higgins, 53, hoped to ride a national backlash against President Donald Trump to snag a runoff slot from the two Republican contenders with well-known names. She won endorsements from labor unions in and out of county government, along with prominent local Democrats, and backing from party coffers.
Bruno Barreiro was the only commissioner to publicly support Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Most of the campaign money and negative campaigning focused on Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla, with each camp trying to flip the other’s name recognition into a liability.
Political mailers against Zoraida Barreiro hit Bruno Barreiro for his support of the 2009 Marlins Park public-funding agreement in an effort to tie his voting record to his wife. Diaz de la Portilla got his with ads highlighting his various brushes with the legal system, including his estranged wife seeking a restraining order against him in 2010.
All four candidates live on the Miami side of the district, meaning the contest will leave Miami Beach without a resident on the County Commission no matter who wins. In a district where nearly two out of every three voters identify themselves as Hispanic, the race drew three candidates of Cuban heritage. The fourth, Higgins, used the hashtag #lagringa as a nod to her role as the one non-Hispanic in the race.
Barreiro, 50, works as an executive for the healthcare company founded by her husband’s family. She was born in Cuba and arrived in the United States during the Mariel boat lift. She received endorsements from unions county firefighters and water-and-sewer employees.
Diaz de la Portilla, 53, is a professional campaign consultant whose parents came from Cuba. Garin also came to the United States from Cuba. Higgins grew up in New Mexico, and speaks Spanish, having served as a Peace Corps director in Belize.
Fundraising reports are incomplete, but the published results show Barreiro ahead with about $180,000 raised through her campaign and two political committees she registered to help solicit donations. Diaz de la Portilla finished second with about $150,000, and Higgins third with $50,000. Garin raised less than $6,000 for his campaign.
While Higgins used the race to make her debut in local politics, both Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla hoped for comebacks. Barreiro lost her race for the Miami City Commission last year, finishing third and missing a runoff that former mayor Joe Carollo ultimately won. Diaz de la Portilla lost his bid to return to the Florida Senate last year.
Higgins received the only public endorsements from sitting commissioners. Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat, and Xavier Suarez, an independent, both backed her. No other commissioner announced their endorsements, including the five other Democrats on a commission that was evenly divided by party before Barreiro resigned. A Republican win in District 5 would reset the nonpartisan board’s six-and-six split.
The race helped magnify some political rifts in the Miami political establishment.
Carollo, whose Miami district is surrounded by Miami-Dade’s District 5, backed Diaz de la Portilla in the race. Frank Carollo, who held the city seat before his brother, backed Barreiro. Joe Carollo is a top foe of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, whose father, the county commissioner, endorsed Higgins. A son of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, lobbyist C.J. Gimenez, signed on to the Diaz de la Portilla campaign.
Democrats had tried to recruit a current or former office holder to run for the rare open seat on the commission, but all declined.
Turnout topped 12 percent, with fewer than 12,000 votes cast in a district with nearly 95,000 voters. Mail-in ballots (once described as “absentee” but available to all district voters who wanted them) accounted for about 55 percent of the vote.
Early voting generated 18 percent of the votes cast, with the remaining 27 percent cast on Election Day. Barreiro took the early lead, with 35 percent of the share of the mail-in ballots. Diaz de la Portilla was in second place then, at 31 percent.
Higgins was a close third at 29 percent. But the Democrat won the nearly two-week Early Voting period, with 42 percent of the ballots cast. She also dominated on Election Day, taking nearly as many votes on Tuesday as did Barreiro and Diaz de la Portilla combined.