MIAMI, FLORIDA —In a strip mall two blocks from Calle Ocho in Little Havana, a gringo is preparing to flip a seat held by a Republican for nearly 30 years.
David Richardson has represented parts of the district since 2012, when he made history by becoming the first elected openly gay member to serve in the state legislature.
In Florida’s Aug. 28th primary, he is running for a seat in the US House currently held by Republican lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring. His main competition in the race is Donna Shalala, a safe, conventional Democrat.
FL-27 encompasses most of the city of Miami, including Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Little Havana. Despite being represented by a Republican for so long, the district voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 20 percentage points — Clinton’s largest margin of any Republican-held seat in the country.
Democrats are hoping to flip the House from red to blue this year, and this race as a must-win for the party, which sees Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement as a chance to finally win a seat in one the most Democratic districts in Florida.
The eventual Democratic nominee will likely win the general in November, but the primary is the much bigger battle. Democrats are repeatedly warned not to go too far left at the risk of alienating centrist voters as campaign ahead of the August 28 election, when voters in South Florida decide which shade of progressivism is in their future.
Richardson, who has knocked on thousands of doors in the district, says his progressive message is resonating with the district’s Democratic voters. In a district with the most Obamacare enrollees in the nation, constituents are beginning to see through Shalala’s more corporate approach to Democratic politics. Like other middle-of-the-road Democrats, Shalala shies away from phrases like “Medicare For All” in favor of whitewashed terminology like “Medicare For All Option” or “Medicare For All Access.”
A former president of the University of Miami and Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, Shalala has the name recognition and deep-pocketed donors, but Richardson hopes his grassroots endorsements and track record as a proven progressive with tangible results will give him the edge in the primary.
In the Florida House of Representatives, Richardson is best known for his hands-on approach to reforming the state prison system. Following reports of hazing and abuse at a Florida prison for juvenile offenders, Richardson, a forensic auditor by trade, decided to investigate.
“I honestly didn’t believe that these reports could be true, so I just decided to just do a little audit,” Richardson told ThinkProgress. “I figured out what I would try to do for a client if I were trying to get down to the truth.”
After he presented his findings to the Department of Corrections Secretary, Richardson’s request to shut down the juvenile wing of the prison was fulfilled.
His quest to reform the state’s ailing prison system has taken Richardson to some two dozen correctional facilities, where he has met with more than 120 inmates during more than 30 visits.
In the aftermath of the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting, Richardson was able to convince Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature to ban bump stocks, a gun accessory that makes semiautomatic weapons fire even faster. The ban is now Florida law.
In addition to his record in the Florida House of Representatives, Richardson is campaigning on policies most establishment Democrats have steered clear of this election cycle.
He traveled to Cuba — a politically risky move that would have been unthinkable from a Democrat even last election cycle — to better understand the experience of the thousands of Cuban-Americans living in the district. During the visit he met only with everyday Cubans — no local politicians — and found that the Trump administration’s Cuba policy has helped worsen the situation for Cubans on the island.
“We met with an entrepreneur on the island who told us that in 2016 she was serving 200 lunches a day and now she’s serving 30 lunches a day,” Richardson said.
While he did receive some pushback from some older Cuban-Americans wary of any engagement with the island, the response has generally been positive.
“They feel like it was a bold, progressive move that someone would take this action to travel there.”
Richardson’s experience investigating abuse at Florida’s private prisons influenced his decision to make abolishing Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) a part of his platform. Private prison company GEO Group runs numerous ICE detention centers in Florida and across the country.
In a Spanish language ad addressing his position to abolish ICE, Richardson goes after the agency for separating families and targeting DREAMers.
Trump ha usado #ICE para hacer su trabajo sucio, dividir familias, perseguir a los DREAMers y causar dolor a inmigrantes que solo buscan libertad.
— David Richardson (@david4florida) August 7, 2018
“Within the country, within the borders where ICE has jurisdiction, what’s happened since 2003 when ICE was established, and what’s happened more recently under the Trump administration, is they are using these guerrilla-style military-style tactics to address common immigration issues, and that is not what we need,” Richardson said.
Recently Richardson campaigned with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who introduced a bill to abolish ICE earlier this year.
“He’s really woke to these issues,” Pocan told Florida Politics. “And Donna Shalala is kind of waking up to some of them. But it’s not enough. What we need is someone who can hit the ground running.”
It appears the constituents of FL-27 also want someone who can hit the ground running. Richardson is closing in on Shalala according to recent polls. He even out-fundraised her, despite Shalala’s rolodex of donors.