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Cross the party? Read this, and you might think twice

By TAMARA LUSH
Published September 2, 2006


MIAMI - This is what happens if you are Alex Villalobos, a Republican state senator who crossed his party and Gov. Jeb Bush:

- You will have a leadership role taken away from you;

- You will face a fierce opponent in your party's primary, a well-known pol who will have the endorsement of the popular governor and millions of dollars spent on his behalf;

- As you campaign around your suburban Miami-Dade district, you will be followed by a man dressed in a chicken suit.

The fight over who represents Senate District 38 - a slice of Miami-Dade County that includes the largely Cuban enclaves of Westchester and West Kendall - is one of the nastiest and costliest this primary season. The outcome this Tuesday doesn't affect just the 300,000 voters in the district; at its core, the race is a fight for the future of the Republican party.

"It's a slugfest," sighed lobbyist Ron Book. "It's about as ugly as I've ever seen and it's going to come down to the wire."

Here's a little background: Villalobos, 43, was first elected to the state House in 1992 and to the state Senate in 2000. He was a rising star, one of the party faithful. He was elected majority leader and was supposed to be the first-ever Cuban-American Senate president in 2008, but a few votes during the 2005 and 2006 legislative sessions changed that.

During those two sessions, Villalobos voted against a GOP plan to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to weaken the class-size amendment. He also voted with Democrats to block a Bush priority: a bill that would ask voters to amend the state Constitution to protect vouchers.

"The team that got me here were the voters back home in a Republican district," Villalobos said at the time. "I'm living up to their expectations."

Punishment was swift. He was stripped of his leadership role and ousted from a posh Senate office. The move disrupted the state Senate in the closing weeks of the spring session and set up permanent camps within the state GOP of Villalobos supporters and opponents.

Then, he was challenged for re-election by Frank Bolanos, 53, the well-known, conservative chairman of the Miami-Dade County School Board. He, too, is Cuban-American.

"It reminded me of an old movie, where you're drummed out of the service in disgrace, they rip your epaulets off, tear off the buttons of your uniform coat, break your sword in two and escort you out of the gate," said lobbyist Mac Stipanovich. "They drummed him off the team, because the perception was that he hasn't been a team player."

The punishment wasn't over for Villalobos. He lost his long-standing backing from the Florida Chamber of Commerce. A supporter of Bolanos, Alejandro Rizo, no less than a Miami high school principal filed as a write-in candidate for the general election, a clever move that closes the primary to Republican voters only. No Democrats have filed to run for the seat so the winner of the primary will face the token opposition of Rizo in November.

Bush endorsed Bolanos, appearing with him in bilingual ads, saying that Bolanos was a "true Republican."

Then came the chicken suit.

After the two candidates couldn't agree on debate times and places, the Bolanos campaign sent a man in a chicken suit to stand outside of the office of Villalobos, who wasn't fazed.

"A bunch of people rushed the chicken because they thought they could get Pollo Tropical coupons," he said.

More damaging than the chicken suit, however, has been the money that has flowed into the contest to support the Bolanos cause. Although the two candidates have raised about $400,000, local observers estimate that more than $5-million is being spent on the race.

Much of the money is not controlled by either candidate, but rather is raised through large donations funneled to so-called 527-groups, political committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money to advertise a political message so long as they don't expressly urge people to vote for or against a candidate.

"I'm calling this the most expensive state Senate race in state history," said Miami radio talk show host Jim DeFede, who pointed out that many of Bolanos' ads have attacked Villalobos instead of touting what Bolanos can do.

DeFede also said that the race has split the Miami-Dade Republican Party and, to some extent, the Cuban-American political machine that runs the county. As Bush and state Sen. Alex Diaz de Portilla endorsed Bolanos, U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez lined up behind Villalobos.

"Everyone had to square off and see where they were," said DeFede. "There has always been a collegial atmosphere within the delegation. This race has sort of ripped that apart."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at lush@sptimes.com or at 727-893-8612.

[Last modified September 2, 2006, 01:13:24]


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