By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
South Florida congressmen are dropping left and right.
First, it was liberal Democrat Robert Wexler. He bolted mid-term last month to take a job running a Middle East think tank.
Now, it is conservative Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart. He announced last week he won’t be running for a 10th term later this year.
Diaz-Balart, who represents voters in southwest Broward and central Miami-Dade, sought to burnish his legacy and expound on his achievements in a short departure speech that had little do with Broward. He did not say why he was leaving.
That, of course, is stoking a political guessing game.
Broward Democratic Party boss Mitch Caesar thinks Diaz-Balart’s decision to step down has a lot to do with protecting his brother, Miami U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, from possibly career-threatening political reform.
Last month, state election officials put on the 2010 ballot the so-called “fair districts” initiative after supporters collected more than 676,000 signatures on a petition. If 60 percent of Florida voters approve in November, the proposed constitutional amendments would diminish the now Republican-led Legislature’s power to redraw political districts to reflect population changes.
Lawmakers would be specifically prohibited from favoring or disfavoring a party or an incumbent during reapportionment. Districts they drew would also have to be contiguous.
Such change is problematic for Mario Diaz-Balart. In 2002, as Florida House Majority Leader, he helped draw a newly created congressional seat to suit his ambition. The 25th congressional district he now holds was stretched across the empty Everglades to corral Collier County GOP voters.
The proposed amendments would likely force drastic new line drawing.
That could explain why shortly after Lincoln’s announcement, Mario declared that he would abandon his tailor-made district to run for Lincoln’s solidly Republican seat.
“It smells of a reappointment gambit to me,” said Caesar.
Democrats have long contended that Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s brand of single-mindedness about Fidel Castro and his brother reveals a politician more interested in Cuba than Miami or Broward.
But others wonder, too.
As recently as August, when Gov. Charlie Crist was considering whether to name Lincoln to fill out the term of retiring U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, Miami Herald political reporter Beth Reinhard questioned whether he might suddenly quit if the opportunity arose to run for president of Cuba.
In a similar vein, local Channel 6 reporter Hank Tester wrote Wednesday on NBCMiami.com that Lincoln’s exit positions him to become “the man to see in Miami” about all things Cuba.
But there’s a lesser known reason why Diaz-Balart may have decided to withdraw from public life.
In the heat of his 2008 re-election campaign, Miami Herald reporter Lesley Clark wrote how state Democrats were looking to exploit statements made about Diaz-Balart by Puerto Rico New Progressive Party Senator Jorge De Castro Font. De Castro Font had been arrested recently by the FBI following his indictment on multiple bribery, fraud and money laundering charges.
The Herald reported then that in an interview with a local television station, De Castro Font talked of traveling with another island politician to Miami in 2005 to deliver $50,000 in illicit cash for Diaz-Balart’s campaign. The source of the money was alleged to be a prominent island family.
Diaz-Balart vehemently denied getting the money, and called the accusation a cheap campaign trick. No other public evidence exists to implicate Diaz-Balart.
Since then, however, De Castro Font has started talking with federal authorities, according to the Puerto Rico Daily Sun.
What De Castro Font is talking about, and whether it has anything to do with Diaz-Balart, is not known. But his cooperation followed a Jan. 21, 2009 guilty plea in federal court in San Juan to 21 counts of honest services fraud and extortion stemming from a scheme to shake down local businessmen for money.
“Reportedly, De Castro’s cooperation has led to other charges against third parties, which federal authorities are holding under seal until they deem it appropriate to charge these persons,” the paper reported last week.
De Castro Font’s plea agreement – parts of which are secret – says he faces more than a decade behind bars. But to date, the judge has postponed sentencing and he remains out of jail on house arrest.
In addition to the federal charges, De Castro Font faces 182 corruption charges in Puerto Rico.