The Miami-Dade GOP will choose a new leader next week. Will Democrats stand pat?

David Smiley

On the heels of an election that dramatically changed the outlook of Miami-Dade County politics, Democrats and Republicans will convene next week to choose local leaders for their respective parties.

Miami-Dade Democrats appear likely to stick with current Chairman Steve Simeonidis despite an underwhelming performance last month by the party’s candidates in partisan races up and down the ballot. Republicans, meanwhile, will close out a banner 2020 by choosing a replacement for outgoing Chairman Nelson Diaz, who is stepping down after eight years on the job.

The new chairperson of the Miami-Dade GOP when Republicans hold a Dec. 10 socially distanced vote on local leadership is likely to be County Commissioner Rene Garcia, a well-regarded 46-year-old former state lawmaker and Hialeah native. Nominations can be made up until the moments before the vote.

Garcia said Friday that he’s running because he wants to do more to defend free speech and freedom of religion, and because he wants to recruit conservative candidates for upcoming local elections next year and state elections in 2022. He also said he hopes to improve cooperation both within the GOP and between Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s important to reach across the aisle and work together to try to solve the issues this community has,” said Garcia, a former Florida state representative and senator known to back bipartisan legislation. “I think I can do a good job of bringing people together in the party and reaching across the aisle, like I did in the Legislature.”

If elected to a two-year term, Garcia, who is Cuban-American, would take over a party that dominated down-ballot races this November, gained support among Hispanic and Black voters and saw a groundswell of support that helped President Donald Trump improve upon his 2016 margins by around 200,000 votes.

Garcia is running with Diaz’s support.

“Every outgoing chair can only hope that the new chair does an even better job and leads the party to even greater heights, and I think Rene Garcia is that person,” said Diaz.

Local parties recruit and organize

Though not as influential in partisan elections as their state counterparts, local parties help with candidate recruitment, campaigning and grassroots organizing. Increasingly in Miami-Dade County, the local Republican and Democratic parties have played roles in non-partisan municipal elections by supporting the candidates who back their platforms and ideals.

As a politician occupying a non-partisan post, Garcia would bring a different profile to the job than Diaz, a lobbyist for The Southern Group. But Garcia said there’s no conflict between his would-be duties as party chair and his responsibilities as a county commissioner.

“There’s definitely a firewall,” Garcia said.

For the Democratic Party, victories in non-partisan municipal races — including the first election of a Democratic Miami-Dade County mayor in 20 years — have been a silver lining to an otherwise disappointing year that has led to soul-searching among Florida Democrats. Simeonidis, who is seeking reelection to a four-year term, said he plans to continue focusing on municipal races heading into 2021, when a number of municipalities, including the city of Miami, will elect mayors and commissioners.

From left: Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Steve Simeonidis poses after a Democratic congressional primary debate in 2018 next to U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, Michael Hepburn, Matt Haggman, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Ricky Junquera (front) and David Richardson.
From left: Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Steve Simeonidis poses after a Democratic congressional primary debate in 2018 next to U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, Michael Hepburn, Matt Haggman, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Ricky Junquera (front) and David Richardson.

“I’m seeking reelection to build on the local successes we had in 2020,” said Simeonidis, a 33-year-old attorney who became chairman in 2019 when his predecessor, Juan Cuba, stepped down midway through his term. “I want to continue to build the infrastructure we built into the summer and fall, which was perhaps the largest field operation in the entire state, which we were able to do in a safe manner.”

Simeonidis is the only candidate running for his party’s chair, according to the party’s list of candidates for the Dec. 7 election, to be held virtually. But, as with Republicans, nominations can be made up until the moments before the vote, and some Democrats have expressed frustration with the party’s direction under Simeonidis.

Also in the coming days, Democratic and Republican parties in Broward County will elect new leaders.

Broward Democrats will vote virtually on Dec. 6 to decide who will replace Chairwoman Cynthia Busch, who is not seeking reelection. Three candidates — Rick Hoye, Alfredo Olvera and Stewart Webster — are vying to replace her.

Republicans will vote Dec. 7 in a socially distanced gathering at the Signature Grand in Davie on who will replace Chairman George Moraitis, who is not seeking reelection. Moraitis has endorsed Tom Powers, a former vice mayor of Coral Springs.