Miami Herald: Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s exit from Congress sets off political scramble

Feb 12, 2010

The Miami Herald published this story on February 12, 2010.


Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the passionate defender and architect of measures to strengthen the Cuban embargo, said Thursday that he won’t seek reelection to Congress, setting off a political scramble that reached from Tallahassee to Miami.

The nine-term Republican congressman did not give a specific reason for stepping down, saying only that “it’s time.” Allies said the 55-year-old scion of a powerful Cuban-American family that has held elected office in pre-revolutionary Havana and Washington wanted to leave on top, on his own terms.

“I’m leaving Congress with a sense of duty fulfilled,” said Diaz-Balart, who served 18 years in Washington, preceded by six in the Florida Legislature.

Within minutes of his announcement, Diaz-Balart’s younger brother launched a campaign to run for office in the more Republican-friendly congressional district. Mario Diaz-Balart’s seat, in turn, quickly piqued the interest of a number of state legislators and Miami-Dade officials.

To the list of marquee statewide contests on the 2010 ballot, add a spirited congressional race in South Florida. At least five of Florida’s seats in Congress are expected to change hands.

“Seats are going to be open and that gives a chance to other public servants to run,” Mario Diaz-Balart said. “It opens the door for new blood.”

Mario Diaz-Balart — whose anemic fundraising for his reelection had sparked rumors of his retirement — called his brother’s seat a “natural move,” noting that he has represented many communities in the district and that he would also represent a slice of Broward County, where he was born.

A flood of Republicans began jockeying to take his place. Potential candidates include state Sens. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Alex Villalobos, state Rep. David Rivera, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and U.S. Sen. George LeMieux’s state director, Carlos Curbelo.

Rivera looks like the front-runner, with more than $1 million in campaign donations already stockpiled for a state Senate bid. But a jump to a federal race would require him to return the checks to comply with the ban on corporate donations.

The most obvious Democratic contender, Joe Garcia, who unsuccessfully challenged Mario Diaz-Balart in 2008 — losing 53-47 — said he is committed to his Department of Energy post in the Obama administration.

Still, a race could be competitive: Republicans John McCain and George W. Bush have carried the district, but so have Democrats U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

In a sign that the race would generate sparks, Diaz de la Portilla taunted Rivera, whom he called a longtime friend.

“If David does decide to run I’ll give him a good old-fashioned a– whooping, and you can quote me on that,” Diaz de la Portilla said, adding that he has the stronger record. “You are here to make policy and make a difference, not just play politics.”

Lincoln Diaz-Balart announced his retirement at a packed news conference at Florida International University’s law school building, named after grandfather Rafael J. Diaz-Balart, a Cuban lawmaker who fled Fidel Castro’s regime. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said he is likely to practice law again.

His colleague, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said South Florida is losing “a tireless fighter for a free and democratic Cuba and a savvy and keen parliamentarian.” Diaz-Balart said his wife, Cristina, was his sole confidante as he considered becoming “a private citizen.”

“It wasn’t an easy decision for him, but he believes it’s time to move on,” she said. “Throughout the years, he has missed many family events. Now he’ll be there. But is he going to miss politics? You bet.”

The decision comes two years after a grueling reelection race in which he successfully fended off former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Democratic candidates who questioned whether voters in the district were ready for a change in U.S.-Cuba policy.

On Thursday, Lincoln Diaz-Balart ruled out a late entry into the U.S. Senate race and said he does not plan to run for office in Cuba, if and when the current regime ends. But seeing a free Cuba remains his pet project, he said.

He plans to start a non-profit inspired by his father’s White Rose organization, the first anti-Castro exile group, which was founded in January 1959 and aimed to support a democratic future for Cuba. His father, Rafael L. Diaz-Balart, died in 2005.

As a private citizen and through his nonprofit, Diaz-Balart said he will focus on dissidents on the island.

“I will help the heroes in Cuba living in every municipality. Those are the people who are fighting communism day in and day out.”