Annette Taddeo has overcome a cleft lip, 'socialista' label; can she beat Ron DeSantis?
DELTONA — In running for governor, Annette Taddeo faces some gargantuan challenges, and Thursday night in Deltona, it was in full view.
Campaigning just off the Interstate 4 corridor, the Miami state senator told a group of 20 Democrats she knows she must overcome the name recognition of her fellow Democratic contenders and the money amassed by the incumbent Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Taddeo's argument is she has overcome great challenges before. Among the personal: She was born with a cleft lip that required 19 surgeries to repair. And politically, Taddeo was a surprise winner in a 2017 special Senate election in a district that had backed Donald Trump in the prior year.
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Looking ahead at 2022, Taddeo trails Democratic frontrunners Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried. A St. Leo University poll from mid-October shows DeSantis defeating all three, with Taddeo facing the steepest climb, 19 points. But as a Latina born in Colombia, Taddeo shares her ethnicity with the fast-growing Hispanic population in Florida.
"Hispanics in the 2020 Census are 27% of the state. That’s a lot of people and a tremendous opportunity for voters to help us win in a state that’s always decided by 1% or less," she said in an interview following her talk with the Southwest Volusia Democratic Club.
One of the major reasons Donald Trump won Florida by a greater margin in 2020 than in 2016 was support among Latinos in Miami-Dade.
“There are a lot of Hispanics that we lost in this last election and we lost them because they scared them with the socialism and communism and it worked, and we didn’t fight it back," she said. "So we are going to fight it back and we are going to get those voters back."
Her stop in Deltona, where 37.6% of the population is Hispanic, was no accident. But Taddeo said she aims to be a governor who represents all of the state's population, and she started by hitting the road in Pensacola.
She was born in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, where she grew up on a farm.
"You can’t get any more in touch with nature and really learn hard work," she told the club. "It’s a different kind of world, which is actually really helpful now that I’m going all over the state, including some rural areas. I actually know how to milk a cow and I grew up with horses."
The 54-year-old mother of a public-school student also touts her experience as a small business owner. She started LanguageSpeak Inc., an interpreting business, in 2001. The firm now offers services in 240 languages.
She moved to Colombia to Huntsville, Alabama, when she was 17 after FARC, a Marxist guerilla group labeled as a terror organization, took her father, Anthony Taddeo — an American World War II veteran fighter pilot who had started a helicopter school in Colombia — captive. He eventually escaped, but he and her Colombian-born mother, Elizabeth, decided it would be safer to send their daughter to the United States.
Taddeo, who thought she knew English when she moved to America, said she soon realized she had a lot of work to do on her accent. She jokes about how her English might include some Alabama twang.
As a student at the University of North Alabama, she ran her first election in student government, putting up posters reading: "Annette Taddeo for secretary."
On election day, she said someone had changed the posters to read: "Annette Taddeo for deportation."
She called that a pivotal moment.
"That day I lost that election but I gained so much more, because I gained that understanding that people judge us, treat us differently," she said. "Sometimes it's because of the color of our skin, the way we look, our accent, whatever... I know what makes this country great is our diversity."
She decided then she would someday run for office.
Taddeo ran a Congressional race in 2008, losing to Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She was Crist's running mate in the 2014 governor's campaign when Rick Scott won re-election by 1%.
Then in 2017, she won the Senate seat vacated by Republican Frank Artiles, who was facing expulsion following a profane tirade at a bar that included using the n-word while talking with Black senators. Artiles is now facing trial, accused of paying a "ghost" candidate in a different Miami state Senate race.
In 2017, Taddeo defeated Jose Felix Diaz, who she said "was supposed to be the next Senate president ... the next Marco Rubio." And it was an uphill battle.
"They attacked me in every possible way. They didn’t just call me a 'socialista' or a 'communista.' They also called me a terrorist sympathizer. On TV. Every day, every commercial break."
The terrorism charge hurt Taddeo in particular because that ad contained footage of FARC, the very group that had kidnapped her father.
"We pushed back with my personal story," she said.
Democrats, she said, have got to try something different, which starts with not giving up in a state dominated by Republicans for more than 20 years.
"We've got a lot of Democrats who stay home. We need to bring them out ... and not shy away from our values. Be proud of our values," Taddeo said.
Democrats should claim credit for statewide ballot initiatives including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, requiring land and water conservation, restoring felons' right to vote and lowering classroom sizes, she said.
“Maybe the reason we’ve been losing is because we haven’t been proud of saying what we’re for," Taddeo said. "We’re so busy of saying what they’re against and how horrible they are. How about talking about what we’re going to do? And how great we are? And what we stand for?”
Dolores Guzman, a former Democratic candidate for the District 27 state representative in 2020, introduced Taddeo at the Deltona event and said she's planning to volunteer for her campaign starting next year.
Guzman said Taddeo has an "amazing story" and her ability to win is proven, having flipped the Republican-held Senate seat to blue.
"In our current political environment," Guzman said, "it is a must to have an incorruptible, compassionate and fierce leader."
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This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Annette Taddeo, Miami Democrat for governor, meets voters in Deltona