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Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz draws challenger backed by pet advocates

By Douglas Hanks, The Miami Herald
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 08--Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz was on his way to an uncontested reelection to a fourth term until Marjorie Figueira saw a television ad inviting her to run.

The cable spot, funded by Pets' Trust Miami organizers, urged viewers to run against Diaz and other commissioners who didn't support higher property taxes last year to fund animal services. "We need you," the announcer said. "Call now."

On the eve of the June 17 filing deadline, Figueira dialed the number on the screen. The next morning, the retired school administrator was Diaz's lone opponent in the Aug. 26 primary to select the next commissioner for District 12.

She brings zero name recognition and virtually no money to the race against Diaz, a veteran leader in West Miami-Dade with a formidable fund-raising apparatus and consistent success at the polls. But the newcomer isn't without resources.

Thanks to close support from Pets' Trust leaders, Figueira's last-minute challenge has quickly garnered polished mailers in English and Spanish, a phone bank operation and even a roadside demonstration featuring a person in a dog costume holding a sign reading "Send 'Pepe' Packing."

The Pets' Trust effort is bringing howls from the Diaz camp because the campaign cash hasn't been disclosed.

Michael Rosenberg, a Pets' Trust founder who helps direct Figueira's campaign, said the electioneering and candidate-seeking ad was funded through a nonprofit corporation, Pets Voice Inc., rather than through a political committee subject to extensive reporting requirements. As a result, there is no record of who is contributing money to unseat Diaz.

Figueira won the public support of billionaire Norman Braman, long a bane of Miami-Dade incumbents. But she and her supporters will need a remarkable surge in financing to even approach the kind of war chest Diaz has amassed in his suburban district, which starts in the Everglades and moves about 15 miles east to include Doral and Hialeah Gardens.

The latest finance reports show Diaz raised $280,000 for his campaign and an additional $270,000 for an allied electioneering committee, We the People. Figueira's campaign account shows $1,500 received, and Rosenberg said Pets Voice secured about $30,000 for the race.

On the issues, Figueira describes herself as more willing than Diaz to increase county property taxes to improve services. She said she backed the eight commissioners who voted for a higher library tax in July. Diaz was one of five commissioners to vote against it.

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Figueira, 68, also said she supports a tax increase for more animal services, the driving issue behind the Pets' Trust campaign to punish Diaz and the other seven commissioners who voted against the measure during the 2013 budget process. While voters backed a nonbinding question on higher taxes for animals in 2012, commissioners argued the issue was too muddy to merit the tax increase.

In an interview, Figueira initially said she would support tax increases only if voters first backed them at the ballot box. Asked to reconcile that position with her support of higher library taxes, Figueira backed off and said she would make an exception given the central role education plays in the community.

"We are doing a disservice and injustice to a community by not providing library services to everyone," she said.

She would still require a ballot item for higher taxes to avoid planned layoffs in the county police department.

Diaz, 53, declined an interview request for this article. In response to a written question about what he has accomplished during his current term, Diaz cited county ordinances tied to child safety and sexual predators, as well as securing federal help on flood insurance and transportation funding.

"Much of District 12 serves as a freight and commerce hub," he wrote, "but it also stretches the capacity of our roadways. I work closely with the municipal officials [to] ensure the prosperity of our communities and residents."

Diaz, first elected to the County Commission in 2002, doesn't seem to be brushing off his rookie challenger. A video posted on his campaign Facebook account shows the commissioner at the wheel of a black SUV, warning a Figueira supporter against posting a campaign flier on a Doral utility pole. Diaz accompanied the post with the hashtag "#noplatform."

Though she is waging what could be the shortest candidacy in this year's commission race -- no challenger filed to run later than Figueira -- the newcomer claims she has already been introduced to the darker side of politics. Figueira points to a July 7 meeting arranged by a former colleague as well a current school administrator with ties to the county's political establishment.

"It was very intimidating," Figueira said of the meeting at Shula's Restaurant in Miami Lakes with Joseph Mathos, a former deputy superintendent of schools, and Carlos Manrique, the current supervisor of workforce development for the school system who in 2013 also registered to lobby for a developer in Miami-Dade.

Figueira said the meeting concerned Manrique's own bruising experience as a failed candidate for the Florida House in 2010, and how "if I continued to run, things would come up from my past."

She said her spotty voting history came up during the meeting, along with court records involving relatives tied to her late husband's estate. "They're were trying to persuade me not to run," Figueira said.

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Both Mathos and Manrique denied trying to intimidate Figueira. They also said they did not talk to Diaz about the meeting ahead of time, a statement Diaz confirmed.

"Marjorie was an outstanding employee," said Mathos, who retired in 2003 and now lives in Cape Canaveral. "I wanted to . . . make sure she had her eyes open when she was going into the political process, which can be very nasty in Dade County."

Manrique, who owns a company that gave $500 each to the reelection campaigns of Diaz and commissioners Javier Souto and Rebeca Sosa, said the meeting was supposed to be helpful.

"Politics is a dirty sport --that's the only message we were trying to pass to her," he said. "Nobody ever told her not to run."

___

(c)2014 The Miami Herald

Visit The Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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