State Sen. Villalobos barely squeaks by

State Sen. Alex Villalobos overcame heavy campaigning by Gov. Jeb Bush

to beat Frank Bolaņos by a slim margin


Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald


Published September 6, 2006


In Florida's meanest and most expensive state Senate race, Miami Sen. Alex Villalobos was reelected Tuesday night, overcoming the millions spent by third-party attack groups and the ire of Gov. Jeb Bush, who helped run a candidate against the moderate Republican.


Villalobos said his squeaker of a victory over Miami-Dade School Board member Frank Bolaņos was a triumph of the little guy over ''special interests'' in the state capital, which could face political gridlock with his return. He was to be Florida's first Cuban-American Senate president before he was cast out by the leaders of his own party.

Another reason for Villalobos' win: The unprecedented negative advertising blitz targeting him backfired on Bolaņos and his supporters, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and an education lobby group, All Children Matter, that was miffed that he voted against a Bush school-voucher plan.

Alex Villalobos, state senate candidate, (2nd from left) is greeted by Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez (2nd from right) as he visits him and his wife, Barbara, (left) and daughter Katie (right) at his campaign party at St. Timothy's Catholic Church.

''The voters were obviously disgusted. They tried to buy an election, but it didn't work,'' said Villalobos, who has no Democratic opponent. ``They should have spent more money on healthcare for children and buying more books for kids instead of all that trash on TV.''

All told, Villalobos' supporters spent about $2 million to help him, while the third-party groups spent about $6 million to bring him down. At least $1 million was spent bashing Villalobos in the final week. That sum outpaced the dollars spent by the Democratic governor candidates in the Miami TV market.

Bolaņos, who preferred to let the third-party groups and a spokesman deal with the news media, said little Tuesday as voters dribbled into the polls in the rain, a factor that not only kept voter turnout low but often favors the incumbent.

''Taking on a 14-year incumbent is not easy,'' Bolaņos said shortly after 11:30 p.m. It looks like Alex Villalobos will be reelected. And we certainly wish him well.''

Bolaņos seemed assured of victory this summer when he resigned his safe School Board seat, to which Bush appointed him before he was twice elected without opposition. Bolaņos gained support among Cuban Americans for his push to ban a children's book, Vamos a Cuba, that he said promoted communist Cuba.

His race against Villalobos helped tear apart the unity of the Miami-Dade delegation and threatens to strain relations between Villalobos and Miami Rep. Marco Rubio, the first incoming Cuban-American House speaker, whose top advisor, Hialeah Rep. Ralph Arza, was behind Bolaņos campaign.

Throughout the campaign, Bolaņos defined himself as the ''real conservative'' because, in essence, Villalobos cast key votes against Bush's plans to ask voters to water down the state's class-size law and to perpetually protect vouchers in the state constitution. Bush, who had never tasted such a political defeat before Villalobos, cut ads boosting Bolaņos.

But Villalobos, who has a long pro-gun and anti-abortion platform, was also savaged as a ''liberal'' in television ads. Though he was prime mover of two landmark laws cracking down on sex offenders, one mailer paired his image with serial killer Ted Bundy and said Villalobos was soft on crime.

The Bolaņos camp even had a supporter dress in a chicken suit to follow Villalobos after the two campaigns couldn't agree on a debate at a Miami-Dade Republican forum. Bolaņos later dropped out of the only English-language debate.

Voters like Ada Lopez saw the bare-knuckle campaign play out on her television set, mailbox and telephone. And all it did was draw her to Villalobos. ''I think he's honest, and the campaign that they did to him was very nasty,'' Lopez said. ``I think it's the first time in my life -- and I'm 85 years old -- I've ever seen such a nasty way of sending propaganda.''

But the mailers didn't bother voters like Louis Navarro, 69, who was turned off by Villalobos.

''He was a traitor, and traitors always betray your party,'' he said.

Villalobos supporters, including trial lawyers and the teachers union, fired back at Bolaņos in a number of mailers suggesting he was corrupt because of his ties to fundraiser Sergio Pino, a developer who is under criminal investigation.

With the force of the business lobby and the governor against him, Villalobos faced a tough race by any standards. But it was a campaign made even tougher by the fact that the soft-spoken Republican had only faced one challenger when he ran for his first state House seat 14 years ago.

Villalobos had no close political network to rely on, and to compensate he said he tirelessly walked the district and lost 15 pounds.

In the state Senate, Villalobos also had few close friends. And those he thought were his allies, such as Lake Wales' Sen. J.D. Alexander and North Palm Beach's Jeff Atwater, helped oust him as Senate president for the two-year term beginning in 2008. Taking Villalobos' post was Atwater, who once wore a gold cross Villalobos brought to the pope for a blessing.

Villalobos insists that he can still be Senate president. If so, he'll need the support of all 14 Democrats -- a likely possibility -- plus six Republican senators in the 40-member chamber. One of those senators, Nancy Argenziano of Crystal River, suggested Bush was a ''dictator'' for his involvement in the race.

Villalobos steered clear of mentioning Bush when he declared victory just after 11 p.m. But he hammered his opponents for their ads.

''The people sent a very clear message tonight that these dirty campaigns won't get them a win,'' he said.

State senator counters Jeb's endorsement

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