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House Education Leader Faces Election Challenge

October 31, 2016 - 11:00pm
Manny Diaz Jr.
Manny Diaz Jr.

A key House Republican expected to be one of the top lawmakers on education policy next year is fighting to fend off a Democratic challenger who is using his work on school-related legislation as ammunition for her attacks.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, is likely in line to chair either the House Education Committee or the House panel that oversees education spending --- but only if he can get past Ivette Gonzalez Petkovich, a 37-year-old attorney, in the Nov. 8 election.

Gonzalez Petkovich has portrayed Diaz as someone with an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to his drive for increased school choice because the college he works at is owned by a company that also manages charter schools. In turn, Diaz has pointed out that Gonzalez Petkovich does not live in House District 103 --- which runs from Miramar south through Hialeah Gardens and into parts of Doral.

The district has a partisan makeup that could make it difficult for Diaz to win in a presidential election cycle. President Barack Obama handily carried the district as a Democrat in 2012 --- when Diaz was first elected --- though Republican Gov. Rick Scott won it two years earlier.

Interest groups have taken predictable sides in the race. Business organizations and Florida Right to Life PAC are supporting Diaz, while Florida Planned Parenthood PAC and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees of Florida have backed Gonzalez Petkovich.

Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz --- no relation to the incumbent lawmaker --- has endorsed Gonzalez Petkovich, while Rep. Diaz has touted the support of Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban "Steve" Bovo and several local women elected officials.

Diaz has a significant fundraising advantage, raising almost $477,000 through Oct. 21, compared to nearly $92,000 raised by Gonzalez Petkovich.

Sensing the potential of a challenge, Diaz said his campaign has been working on the ground since January. And he has leaned on his record of bringing state money home to the area.

"It's a classic swing district in the state, and I think that candidates matter, presence matters and what you've done for your community matters," Diaz said. "I was born and raised in this community. I've been in this district for 15 years, living in the actual district, and I've been involved in the community."

Diaz, 43, said he would like to take steps to modernize teacher certification and make it easier to hire and keep teachers. He also continues to support charter schools, magnet schools and other types of choice for parents and students. Property insurance and increasing access to primary health care through methods like telemedicine are also priorities.

And while Diaz said he doesn't often bring up his potential influence in the next legislative session, he underscored the difference it could make when a reporter raised the subject.

"Would you rather have someone who has no say and is not going to have input on anything that happens, or would you want to have somebody who you have open dialogue with, who's one of you, who actually is going to have a seat at the table to try to influence these decisions to help our community?" he said.

Meanwhile, according to Diaz, his opponent has focused largely on personalities in the contest.

"She doesn't have a platform other than being anti-me," he said.

Gonzalez Petkovich promotes criminal-justice reforms and has brought up the issue of blasting at a quarry that has damaged some properties in the district. Diaz's campaign has responded by highlighting his efforts to bring attention to the quarry, including legislation in 2014 that would have provided for a study but was vetoed by Scott.

Gonzalez Petkovich planned to run for office from a young age, but didn't think she would do so until later in life. Her introduction two years ago to Ruth's List --- which promotes Democratic women --- and the chance to run with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket accelerated her plans.

"I just felt like timing-wise, in addition to just sort of my own view of where things are at and where this state is going --- I took the plunge," she said.

Diaz's strong support for school choice has emerged as a key flashpoint in the race. Gonzalez Petkovich has highlighted the incumbent's connections to Academica. Diaz is chief operating officer at Doral College, an unaccredited institution that offers courses to high school students and is owned by the charter-school management company.

She has also pushed back more broadly on Diaz's support for choice, saying it's drawing attention away from the state's role in supporting public schools.

"I just think in general what my campaign represents is sort of a stepping back from the direction of privatization, and trying to redirect it to ... more balanced funding," she said. "And in truth, I have no issue saying I'm a proponent of traditional public schools."

Gonzalez Petkovich said she would support changing support for public schools to "unbalance it the other way" --- toward traditional schools rather than charters.

As he has repeatedly during his time as a lawmaker, Diaz brushed off the allegations of conflict of interest, noting that Florida has a "citizen legislature" where lawmakers serve part time.

"And every member of the Legislature has a day job or a business or anything else," he said. "Just like she is an attorney and she has publicly stated that she is interested in sitting on criminal-justice committees so that she can change the laws that affect her profession, I was a teacher and an administrator when I started in this thing."

Diaz has pointed to Gonzalez Petkovich's residency outside the district, in Doral, with the implication that she has been shopping for a district. Gonzalez Petkovich responded that she and her husband live with in-laws, an intentional arrangement that will make it easy to move to the district after the election. Candidates for legislative seats are not required to live in their districts until they take office.

Gonzalez Petkovich said she "grew up in and around this district" and understands the needs of the community.

"I really consider it a very silly attack. My thought is if that is what they're going to attack me on, then I feel really good about this race. ... If I live two blocks from the district, how can somebody genuinely argue that I'm going to be disconnected from the issues of the district?" she said.

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