Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz intends to seek the Florida Democratic Party’s top post

David Smiley

Battered by a brutal 2020 election, the Florida Democratic Party is attempting to regroup, and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz believes he may be the best person to correct course.

Diaz, the mayor of the city of Miami from 2001 until 2009, has called Democratic Party leaders in recent days to discuss his interest in leading the state party next year as its chairman. In an interview, Diaz, 66, said he believes the party is at a tipping point after losing almost every statewide race since the 2014 elections.

“We’re at a crossroads where we’ve got to get the message out that Florida is [still] in play,” said Diaz, who said he’s heard concern about the direction Florida is heading politically from Democrats around the country.

The Florida Democratic Party is currently led by Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. But following a difficult November in which Democratic candidates in the state lost up and down the ballot, Rizzo is under some pressure to step away. And Diaz is interested in succeeding her as the face of the party.

Democratic Party insiders who have spoken with Diaz say he is an intriguing option for state chairman in 2021 as the party attempts to analyze what went wrong in 2020 and prepare for races for U.S. Senate, governor and the Florida Cabinet in 2022.

“He’s definitely a strong candidate,” said Shevrin Jones, a Democratic South Florida state senator who said he talked to Diaz Sunday after the former mayor reached out. “He spoke about the need for our party to not only unite but to get organized. And he spoke about his time of service and what they were trying to do in building coalitions within communities.”

On whether Diaz was committed to running, Jones said: “He’s going to do it.”

Other possible candidates, such as former attorney general candidate Sean Shaw, have been recruited by others to run. Some Democrats question whether the progressive wing of the party will be comfortable with the centrist Diaz, who was a vocal critic of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders as he sought the Democratic presidential nominee early this year. And Rizzo — who Diaz said “generally did what she was asked to do” — has not yet made it clear whether she will campaign to remain chairwoman.

“The future of the party is best served by bringing people together, dialing down the rhetoric and getting to work to fix what’s broken,” Rizzo said Monday. “I’ve dedicated 15 years in service to this party and I will remain committed to serve in whatever capacity is best for our common mission — and I know that is true of every single Democrat committed to the movement.”

Whoever leads the party in 2021 will inherit an organization under fire. President Donald Trump easily won Florida, which is known for tight elections. And the party, already the minority in Tallahassee, lost seats in the state Legislature in a year when it expected to move closer to parity with Republicans.

“What happened on election night isn’t just the party’s fault. It was a collapse everywhere,” Shaw said Monday, telling the Herald that he is still weighing his options heading into 2021. “It’s not just the party, not just polling, not just messaging. We got a lot of problems in a lot of areas.”

Diaz, who campaigned during the general election for President-elect Joe Biden, told the Miami Herald that he decided to run for party chair after the election while pondering how the Florida Democratic Party can rebound from a difficult campaign season.

“I think we’ve got issues that need to be fixed and we have a job to do, and somebody’s got to do that job,” said Diaz, who compared the moment to his decision to run for mayor as a first-time candidate in 2000. “I looked in the mirror again and said well you should do it. Don’t talk about it, do something about it.”

In November, Democrats were crushed especially hard in Miami-Dade County by losses with Hispanic voters, in particular Cuban Americans, who supported Trump and other Republicans in a big way this year amid GOP-stoked fears of socialism. Diaz is a Cuban-American attorney, though he said he doesn’t believe his ethnicity should be a factor in his candidacy.

In 2000, he represented the relatives of Elián González in their negotiations with the Clinton administration as they tried to keep the 5-year-old Cuban boy in Miami after he fled the island with his mother, who died on the trek. The incident gained international notoriety, and the boy was eventually taken by federal authorities from the family’s Little Havana home in a surprise early morning raid.

As mayor, Diaz oversaw a building boom that transformed Miami. His administration helped negotiate a sprawling deal that paved the way for the controversial financing of Marlins Park, the PortMiami tunnel and the art and science museums along Biscayne Bay. Diaz also dealt with controversy, including a scandal over the city’s $7 million settlement in a lawsuit over fire fees and the collapse of the city’s finances — and ensuing Securities & Exchange Commission investigation and litigation — following his exit.

Diaz is a prolific fundraiser, and is eligible to become chairman due to a recent change in the party’s bylaws that allows members of the Democratic National Committee finance committee to seek party leadership positions. That could help the party at a time when activists worry that frustrated donors will send their money elsewhere. He is close to billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent tens of millions of dollars in the state this fall backing Democrats.

Diaz was once president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He is currently a senior partner at the law firm of Lydecker Diaz. His son, who is also named Manny Diaz, is coach of the Miami Hurricanes football team.