He inherited a bankrupt Miami, and by the end of two terms as mayor, set the city on course to become the world-class metropolis it is today.
He has decades of experience building coalitions in turbulent times.
And, critical to winning elections in Florida, he can reach minority voters in two languages — and disarm false narratives — in the places where many people get most of their election misinformation: Spanish-language radio and television.
So why not choose him, state Dems?
This week, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz announced that he wants to become chairman of the Democratic Party of Florida, dispirited and fractured after losing game-changing statewide elections in 2018 and down-ballot legislative and congressional races, too, in 2020. His shot at getting the job cleared its first hurdle after party chair Terrie Rizzo announced Thursday that she won’t run for re-election.
“I’ve always been a big-tent person,” Diaz, 66, told me Thursday. “There are others who are trying to separate us because it’s convenient for them. We should be hearing each other. Together, we’re unbeatable. That’s the way I’ve guided myself my entire life.”
The party would be foolish to reject the centrist Cuban-American’s bid to revamp and re-energize the party.
From boy janitor to bridge-builder activist
Diaz has a heck of an American Dream story to take on the road.
His first job was as a janitor at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School making $1.10 an hour. He was paid through a federally funded youth employment program for children from families who lived below the poverty line. He was 14.
He swept, wiped desks, took out the garbage — and played football, baseball and basketball.
“I thought I was a billionaire because I had a couple of bucks in my pocket and could take my girlfriend to Burger King for dinner and I could help my parents,” Diaz said. “That’s the America I grew up in — and trust me, they’ve gotten their $1.10 back.”
“Empowering people by giving them an opportunity,” he calls it.
Cuban-born, Diaz registered to vote in 1974 as a Democrat “because that’s where I felt at home — and where the community I came from should feel at home.”
“The gave us a helping hand, allowed us entry into America, and they were concerned about the health of my grandparents and gave us Medicare,” Diaz said. “Health, jobs, training, bilingual education, all those things that are not as commonly discussed today [were identified with the Democratic Party].”
A “DNC whipper-snapper” in his youth trained to canvass and fund-raise, Diaz used to sit at tables outside of naturalization ceremonies in the 1970s and register voters — between 40 and 60 percent of Cuban Americans joined the Democratic Party.
“This was a year-round effort,” he added. “You had all these people ready to go when you had to bring the troops together, enthusiastic and ready to hit the streets. That needs to happen early, not a few months before the election.”
Now, he said, “The Republicans are beating us at the ground game, organization and discipline.” He wants to fix that as party chairman.
He has the background to do it.
As a young activist in the 1980s, Diaz helped bring together Cuban-American, Black, Haitian and Puerto Rican organizations to work for a better Miami. This, at a time when riots, refugees and cocaine cowboys famously led Time magazine to label the city “Paradise Lost.”
Most of all, today’s Democrats need to participate and effectively communicate with communities of color in places where the GOP has made gains by reaching people in churches and grassroots organizations.
There’s a lot of catch-up work for Democrats in a state where Republicans have made high-profile Hispanic and Black appointments in virtually every level of government.
Access to Bloomberg pocketbook
A stellar fund-raiser who has the support and access to New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s pocketbook, Diaz also can bring new resources to the party in the wake of a new reality: Republicans turned Florida red for Donald Trump, and most effectively did so — again — by spinning the falsehood among Cuban Americans and other Hispanics that Democrats are radical socialists.
Dems underestimate the importance of foreign policy that impacts Latinos.
The Cuba-Venezuela issue, for instance, isn’t going away with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House.
As chairman, Diaz would bring formidable re-branding to a party with eyes on the 2022 races for governor, U.S. Senate and Florida Cabinet. He could have an impact on the critical role Miami-Dade voters again will play in the outcome of those races.
A Hispanic party chairman for Florida
It’s been long overdue for a minority to represent a state where 17 percent of the electorate is Hispanic, growing — and being heavily and successfully courted by the Republican Party.
Diaz, a lawyer and Harvard lecturer in his post-mayoral years, has the bilingual skills to address Hispanic audiences in cities in the most populous counties, not only in South Florida, but in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.
Can Diaz step into the chairman’s role and become for Hispanics, as some are calling him after the Georgia get-out the-vote powerhouse, “the Stacey Abrams of Florida”?
It’s a tall order for any candidate in a state as diverse as Florida, which has minorities-within-minority populations that need targeted messaging.
“Manny Diaz is the original grassroots activist,” said pollster Fernand Armandi. “As a minority himself, he understands the power of inclusion, the diversity of the state and that you have to engage all voters of every stripe. He fundamentally understands that unless Democrats win elections and create a party centered around a culture of winning, they can’t turn out policy that makes the lives of Floridians better.”
But not everyone is on board with Diaz.
Party chairwoman Rizzo, who has been blamed for the electoral losses, has stepped aside but the party’s progressive wing thinks the center hasn’t delivered in decades, and that it’s time for change. He’s also opposed by Miamians who say Diaz as tightly aligned with developers “destructive to neighborhoods.”
“We had to fight Diaz to prevent the give-away and destruction of Virginia Key,” said environmentalist Sam Van Leer, president of Urban Paradise Guild. “The developer-gimmies hidden in Miami21 have proved destructive to neighborhoods. If you wanted to put everything wrong about Florida Dem politics in one picture, you have chosen the perfect poster child.”
The criticism is valid, but Diaz can be the counterpoint to Republicans that the Democrats need.
How many times do Florida voters have to swipe right in an election before Democrats get the message that Bernie Sanders-style politics don’t cut it here?
The Florida Democratic Party needs Mayor Manny Diaz at the helm.