Last month, just before Christmas, I attended an event in Miami — Greater Miami, I should say. Coral Gables. May I scribble you a few notes about this? This was the annual luncheon of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. A good portion of Miami’s Cuban-American community, and therefore of the Cuban-American community in general, was there. Much of the Florida political establishment was there. Everyone in the room was greatly concerned that the U.S. be on the right side of Cuban freedom and democracy. This was one of the most moving, emotional, and gratifying political events I have ever been part of.
And I must add this, before going further: The luncheon was, to a great extent, a tribute to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Cuban-American Republican who has just retired from Congress. That accounted for much of the emotion in the room.
Have you ever been to the Coral Gables Biltmore? If not, put it on your list. This hotel and resort screams Old Florida. You half-expect to see Jackie Gleason emerging, dressed for a round of golf: knickers, tam-o’-shanter. You expect to see gangsters: such as Al Capone, who kept rooms there.
There are four Diaz-Balart brothers, one of whom, Mario, continues in Congress. (By the way, for a piece I did on this family, go here.) Lincoln has told me that Mario is a much better politician than he. He’s extremely personable, easygoing, laidback — but, of course, very, very sharp. He knows more about the politics of redistricting than pretty much anybody else. Mario is some combination of surfer dude — or South Beach dude — and Machiavelli.
He tells me about an important figure in the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, who’s a Ford dealer in Miami. If I have understood correctly, the man has just opened up a second dealership. This would seem to be unwise in the current environment. But his thinking goes, “If Ford goes under, I go under. If America goes under, I go under. I’m all in.”
As Mario and I observe, this is the kind of person most of the Democratic party thinks of, or portrays, as a fat cat — a Richie Rich. In reality, you’re always about a week away from . . . you know, Kaputsville. Along with your employees.
In the banquet hall, there is a tremendous amount of camaraderie, comradeship. This is very unusual, in my experience. The speakers are bipartisan, and they begin with Sen. Robert Menendez, the Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey. He and Lincoln Diaz-Balart agree on essentially nothing: except Cuba and U.S. Cuba policy. Menendez has come down to say a special goodbye to Lincoln. He will fly back up to Washington immediately: Majority Leader Reid is delaying votes for him.
Menendez gives an impassioned speech, about the importance of standing up for the rights of human beings. He gets to the part where he will pay homage to Lincoln — and can’t go on. Chokes up. Eventually, he makes it through. I have seen fake tears and choking up — including in politics — and I believe I know the difference between the real and the false. Menendez has shown the former.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is another Democrat at the rostrum. Like Menendez, she knocks ’em dead, with a tough, spirited speech. Wasserman Schultz is a Florida politician. But I understand she has no Cuban Americans in her district. She supports this cause from the heart. One of my colleagues reminds me that Wasserman Schultz may have her eye on future statewide office. Oh, yeah. Hang on, I’m having a cynical moment. I’ll wait till it passes . . .
Anyway, Wasserman Schultz appears foursquare. Gratitude for her is natural.
Years ago, some of us were trying to think of Democrats who stuck up for oppressed Cubans, yearning to breathe free. The list was Tom Lantos (of course), Eliot Engel, Gary Ackerman . . . and then it was hard to go on.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart looks at a lady — a stalwart of this group — and says, “She’s been a Republican for a long time. She was a Republican when the rest of us were Democrats.” Lincoln became a Republican because of Reagan and the Reagan experience. (So did I.) He thought a lot of Jeane Kirkpatrick — shared a worldview with her. (So did I.) He also says that Chris Dodd helped to make him a Republican. Reagan and Dodd — the two politicians who did most to make Lincoln Diaz-Balart a Republican. You remember how disgusting Dodd was, in his defense of Latin American leftists? That Connecticut Democrat, and Democrats like him, made the party of FDR, Truman, and JFK far, far less attractive to the likes of Lincoln Diaz-Balart (and me).