BY DAVID SMILEY
Florida’s Democratic Party picked up a crucial seat in the Florida Senate Tuesday in a special election triggered months ago by a Miami Republican’s alcohol-fueled tirade at a bar near the state Capitol.
Riding an election-day and early-voting surge, Annette Taddeo topped State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in the race to claim Senate District 40, a southwest Dade seat resigned in the spring by former Sen. Frank Artiles. The victory gives Democrats 16 seats in the chamber and hands Taddeo her first campaign win in a political career filled with second-place finishes.
“The voters wanted a champion in Tallahassee who will fight for higher paying jobs, affordable healthcare and fully funded public schools and I am honored and humbled that they have placed their faith and trust in me,” Taddeo, who previously lost races for U.S. Congress and as Charlie Christ’s running mate in the 2014 governor’s election, said in a statement. “I pledge to work every day for the families of my community and not the special interests.”
The race was hotly contested due to its significance to both parties.
The seat became open when Artiles was forced to resign in the spring following a tumultuous week in the state Capitol that began with his racist comments to two black lawmakers. Artiles was initially defiant about the incident, but gave up his seat after it became known that the Miami Herald had a story coming that revealed he’d hired apparently unqualified young women — including a former Hooters “calendar girl” — as campaign consultants.
Democrats, hoping to gain a seat in a heavily Hispanic, Democrat-leaning district, had sought to brand Diaz, an Akerman attorney and local lobbyist, as a government insider and Donald Trump loyalist. Republicans, eager to hold on to their lead in both chambers, attacked Taddeo as a Fidel Castro apologist.
Both promised to pull campaign ads during Hurricane Irma — and then kept running them.
The win was important for Florida’s Democratic Party in Republican-controlled Tallahassee, enough so that former Vice President Joe Biden issued a late endorsement last week for Taddeo. State party chairman Stephen Bittel even tried to convince Gov. Rick Scott to extend voting hours at three polling places Tuesday, arguing that a morning shooting had blocked voters from making it to the polls.
Scott denied the request, but it didn’t matter. Taddeo’s approximately 3,700-vote edge in early and election-day ballots was more than enough to overcome a mail-in lead by Diaz and best him by a roughly 51-47 margin. Christian “He-Man” Schlaerth, who has no party affiliation, took about 2 percent of the vote.
“Democrats across the state are energized and mobilizing to flip Florida blue,” Bittel said in a statement celebrating Taddeo’s victory.
But it wasn’t all bad news Tuesday for Republicans.
A special election for House District 116, which was vacated by Diaz when he decided to run for Artiles’ Senate seat, went in favor of Daniel Anthony Perez. The Republican attorney beat Democrat Gabriela Mayaudón, a former Venezuelan legislator.
The result never seemed in doubt in the Republican stronghold. Perez beat Mayaudón by a margin of about two to one.
“Tonight District 116 elected one of their own,” Perez said in a statement. “I will work tirelessly to make my family, friends, and neighbors proud. Thank you to those who believed in me. I will not let you down.”