Miami Lakes legislator rises swiftly, holds fast to 'free market' ideals

At right, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, huddles on the floor of the Florida House with Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, before the House left early April 28, 2015, for the 2015 session.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
At right, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, huddles on the floor of the Florida House with Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, before the House left early April 28, 2015, for the 2015 session. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published August 29 2015
Updated August 29 2015

Rep. Jose Oliva kept an icy cool as he verbally sparred with his Senate counterpart Bill Galvano over the redistricting map that would force the Legislature's special session to end in stalemate.

As the meeting adjourned Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, suggested they might do better to take the meeting to his house, where they could light up a cigar.

"As long as they are Oliva cigars," mused Galvano, R-Bradenton, a reference to the Nicaraguan tobacco cultivated and sold by Oliva's family.

The 42-year-old CEO of Miami Lakes-based Oliva Cigar has made ample use of his namesake product as he climbed the political ladder in Tallahassee. He makes his cigars available for fundraisers — like Galvano's annual charity golf tournament. He uses them to open doors, as he did when he campaigned. And he uses them to build relationships, as he does when he invites legislators to his rented house just blocks from the Capitol in Tallahassee to eat dinner, mingle on the porch, and choose a cigar kept fresh in the humidor.

"What ultimately results is a group of people sharing ideas and understanding each other's perspective in a very collegial way," he said, adding that the house bans lobbyists. "It really is a sanctuary."

Elected in a special, off-year election in 2011 to replace Rep. Steve Bovo, R-Hialeah, Oliva quickly turned his skills to becoming speaker-designate of the Florida House for 2018, one of the three most powerful positions in Florida.

A conservative Republican, Oliva emerged as a thoughtful and unflappable leader in the recent redistricting session, where he was head of the House Reapportionment Committee.

Oliva showed he not only was a quick study, but an articulate advocate for the House's position. The chamber ultimately blocked attempts by the Senate to make any substantial changes to the congressional redistricting map drawn by the staff, and the session ended in stalemate.

"He's actually all principle and no sugar coating," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, a long-time friend who rooms with Oliva in Tallahassee. "Jose is very willing to compromise and accommodate others so long as he is not violating his principles."

Appointed to the job in July with no experience in redistricting, Oliva embraced the assignment by traveling to Tallahassee before the special session to learn the redistricting process and the law, Diaz said.

The House had spent the previous four months locked in combat with the Senate over the budget and Medicaid expansion, but Oliva was determined not to let the Senate steer the House away from the standards it set when the map that redrew House districts was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 2012.

For Oliva, the House's refusing a last-minute Senate proposal was a triumph of principle over process. A testament to the strength of resilience and character.

"They didn't feel they needed to strictly adhere to the confines of what we had to do within the law," Oliva recalled later.

To Galvano, who is on track to become Senate president in 2018 when Oliva is speaker, it was "unfortunate" the first time they worked together was on an issue that required new, untested rules — and prompted deep divisions.

That afternoon, as Oliva and his roommates headed back to their house, "people were coming by to give him high-fives," recalled Rep. Frank Artilies, R-Miami, a roommate of Oliva's who has known him since high school. Oliva saw the standoff as a failure of the Senate to understand why the House wouldn't break.

"Lessons from business follow in politics," he explained. "Be strong and consistent. Play with your cards face up… People need to know what to expect from you."

It is a discipline taught by his father, Gilberto Oliva Sr., a tobacco grower. Oliva's parents left Cuba in 1964 with their young family. They moved to Spain and then Nicaragua, where Gilberto became a tobacco broker.

By 1969, he began growing tobacco on his own. In 1973, his wife was pregnant with their fifth child, and the family moved to New Jersey where Jose was born. Months later they moved to Hialeah.

It was a scrappy working-class life for the family, Oliva recalled. "But I never felt like I grew up poor,'' he said.

He worked odd jobs while attending Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High, as his father would travel back and forth to Nicaragua where he worked to keep his tobacco business afloat.

"We never really got in trouble. We were pretty geeky kids, "said Sandro Alvarez a Miami Lakes IT consultant who has been close friends with Oliva since high school.

Oliva met his wife, Jeanne, in high school science class "when I was a short, pudgy kid and I never thought she would look at me," he recalled. They married a decade later and have three children, Benjamin, 5, Sabrina, 9, and Celeste, 12.

He attended St. Thomas University part-time but, with student loans mounting and he and his brothers dreaming of starting their own cigar company, Oliva didn't "see there was a way I was going to be able to move at the speed I wanted to move" so he quit school.

In 1995 Oliva and his brothers launched their company at the beginning of the cigar craze using a 30-day loan from the factory owner who worked with their father. The brothers lived together in the same apartment and shared one car until they saved enough to expand a year later, Oliva recalled.

But by this time, the market was saturated with premium cigars and, rather than take on debt to continue, they turned to their father's Nicaraguan tobacco. The switch changed the flavor of Oliva cigars and coincided with the growing popularity of Nicaraguan tobacco. The combination became the recipe for the company's success.

Since then, Oliva Cigar has made its four shareholders — Jose, his two brothers and one of his two sisters — millionaires. He lists his net worth as $12 million on his state financial disclosure forms, with annual income from his share of the company as $1.2 million.

Oliva, who began as the head of sales and promotion, eventually was chosen to be CEO, as each sibling "gravitated to the areas they are strong at," he said.

Last year, the company's top-rated cigar, Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado, was named "Cigar of the Year" by Cigar Aficionado — "the equivalent of winning the Oscars," boasts Oliva.

His entrance into politics came in 2011, when the District 110 House seat gave Oliva the chance he had been waiting for since he ran briefly but then dropped out of a race for Hialeah city commission. He kept a low profile, worked to learn the process and kept focus on his core principle: belief in the free market.

Oliva's first legislative session focused on putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to give elders a property tax break. In 2012, he took on the Florida Chamber of Commerce and became the deciding vote to kill a bill that would make it harder for consumers to sue insurance companies over "bad faith" claims. He was among the most vocal opponents to tax subsidies to the Miami Dolphins' stadium, as well as subsidies for film and other economic development incentives he considers contrary to "free market" ideals.

"He's the most underrated person in the entire legislative process," said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. "He's arguably, probably, the most talented member of the delegation."

This year, Oliva defended the Republican caucus position in the House as it resisted the Senate plan to create a private alternative to draw down federal money for Medicaid expansion.

"He was a formidable opponent," said Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who spent much of the spring making rounds with Oliva on Cuban radio and at community forums. "Even though I thought he was wrong on the policy, I have to admire him for sticking to his guns."

Oliva gets animated when he talks about the "hospital-industrial complex" and hospitals, which he considers self-regulated, government-subsidized monopolies.

But, Garcia notes, the bitter divide that has pitted Republicans against each other, led to budget and redistricting stalemates and two special sessions is a sign of "bad blood that is not good politics, not good policy and not good for the party."

He warns that if House and Senate leaders like Oliva don't work harder to resolve the rift, "what took Democrats 100 years to lose will be lost by Republicans much quicker."

Oliva was named head of the House Select Committee on Affordable Health Care Access and said he will use that position to push for cost-cutting reforms, such as removing the requirements for hospital certificate of need and allowing surgery centers to compete with hospitals.

He is already perceived as a rising star in conservative circles. In August, he spoke at the Americans for Prosperity "American Dream Summit" in Columbus, Ohio, appearing in a lineup of speakers that included presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry.

Although Oliva has created a political committee, he said he will finance his own campaigns and claims to have no other political ambitions.

He believes this perceived independence liberates him from the "bullying, intimidation tactics" and the ties that bind in Tallahassee.

"There's nothing in the world of politics that I want," he said, "so there's no threat of anything that they could take away from me."

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who is designated to precede Oliva as speaker in 2016, said it was Oliva's "deep-rooted convictions" and "his intellect" that caught Corcoran's attention when they first met in at a meeting room in the Governor's Club in 2011. Since then, they have become close friends and are in lock-step on virtually every major issue: no expansion of Medicaid or gambling, more expansion of charter schools, no government subsidies and more tax breaks.

Oliva has broken with Corcoran on only two high-profile issues: the bill to allow students who are in the country illegally to qualify for in-state tuition rates at Florida schools and gay marriage. Oliva supported them; Corcoran opposed.

They have spent hours "with good wine and a cigar" discussing how they will use their speakerships to reform the process and dismantle the top-down leadership structure of the House, blow open the shadowy budgeting process, and challenge powerful lobbyists who attempt to control their agenda, Corcoran said. And Oliva will be his top deputy.

"He knows his philosophy and he fights for that philosophy, and he won't back down for anything," Corcoran said. "That makes him powerful."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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