Annette Taddeo launches campaign to be Florida’s first Latina governor

Taddeo, 54, filed campaign documents with Florida’s Division of Elections on Monday morning. Her entry shakes up a Democratic field that has been so far dominated by two front-runners — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried
Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, speaks during a Senate session in 2019. Taddeo is the only nonwhite gubernatorial candidate among the top contenders, in a state where Hispanics make up nearly 27 percent of the population.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, speaks during a Senate session in 2019. Taddeo is the only nonwhite gubernatorial candidate among the top contenders, in a state where Hispanics make up nearly 27 percent of the population. [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published Oct. 18, 2021|Updated Oct. 18, 2021

After months of open speculation and exploratory meetings around the state, Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo is making it official: she is running to be Florida’s next governor.

Taddeo, 54, filed campaign documents with Florida’s Division of Elections on Monday morning. Her entry shakes up a Democratic field that has been dominated so far by two front-runners — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — as they vie to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022.

“We need a governor who will actually govern,” Taddeo told the Miami Herald in an interview last week. “We clearly have someone that is more concerned about being president than he is about running Florida, more worried about Republican primary voters in Iowa than he is about families here in Florida.”

Taddeo is the only nonwhite gubernatorial candidate among the top contenders, in a state where Hispanics make up nearly 27 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau’s latest release in 2020 — growth that accounts for almost 1.5 million new Latinos in the past 10 years. If she were elected as the Democratic nominee, she would be the first Latina candidate to earn a major party nomination for Florida governor. And if Orlando-area U.S. Rep. Val Demings becomes Sen. Marco Rubio’s Democratic challenger in 2022, Florida’s minority party would top the midterm ballot with two women of color.

Taddeo says she’s running as the grassroots candidate. Her candidacy would be a milestone for a party that has struggled with messaging to Florida Latinos in the past several elections, something Taddeo says she’s confident she will be able to overcome by speaking directly with Hispanic and African-American voters to create a “winning coalition” for Democrats.

A major factor in her decision to run, she explains, is her belief that “candidates need to reflect the coalition” Democrats want to create. It’s not enough for Latinas to be surrogates or running mates or campaign managers, she says. They need to be the ones running, too.

“I love how people work so hard and say, ‘We want minority votes’ ... because they know that the coalition to win is a coalition of diverse voters across the state for Democrats, and certainly it’s something that we haven’t tried before,” Taddeo said. “But for us (women of color) to dare to actually be at the front of the bus instead of the back of the bus is somehow aiming too high.”

Taddeo, a working mother with a 15-year-old daughter and two adult stepdaughters, said parents won’t forget DeSantis’ monthslong feud with local school board members and the Biden administration over implementing mandatory mask policies in public schools.

“As a parent, and from all the parents I’ve heard from, I don’t think that’s something you forget,” Taddeo said. “When politics comes to the point that it’s actually affecting your kids, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Taddeo says Medicaid expansion in Florida and addressing climate change will be two major themes of her campaign over the next 10 months, ahead of the state’s Aug. 23 primary election. But above all, she said she wants to address the crisis of parents, especially women, who have left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t returned.

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“It has become more expensive for parents to figure out who’s going to take care of their kid while they go to work, and if it costs more than what you make, it makes it really tough,” said Taddeo, who owns a business that provides a range of language services called LanguageSpeak. “I know that businesses are aware of this issue, and I think we as a state should start investing more in helping those parents with that child care and earlier education.”

She said she’d like to push for the expansion of Florida’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program, which currently provides a free pre-K education for three hours a day for kids under 4 years old, to run for a full day.

At a Monday news conference outside the Florida Secretary of State’s office, where Taddeo had just filed her campaign paperwork, the state senator said few policy positions distinguished her from her primary opponents, Crist and Fried.

“I don’t think most of us disagree on many of the policies,” Taddeo said. “Although I will tell you, those people across the state that have been really outspoken to me about running are very aware that I am a lifelong Democrat and somebody who has never stood down to our Democratic values.”

Taddeo’s message was a not-so-subtle jab at her opponents: Crist, a former Republican governor, and Fried, who has campaigned for Republicans in the past.

‘Anything is possible’

Rumors of Taddeo’s potential run began circulating earlier this year as she discussed the possibility with Democrats in the Florida Legislature, Miami-Dade County and Washington. She’s been meeting with Hispanic leaders across the state, including in Central Florida.

Taddeo is well-known in South Florida, where she’s a frequent guest on Miami’s Spanish-language radio stations and stumped for national Democrats campaigning on her home turf. She has irked fellow Democrats more than once in openly criticizing her party’s late outreach and investments for Florida Latinos and their positions on Latin America policy.

“The people that are within the Democratic Party, where I have been with them in the trenches, the ones who knock on the door, the ones who work and make the phone calls and really try to help elect Democrats, I do know that many of them respect me because I’m willing to speak out when we are not doing something right,” Taddeo said.

But Taddeo is lesser known than Fried, the only Democrat elected statewide in Florida in 2020, and Crist, who registered as a Democrat in 2012 — and two years later chose Taddeo as his running mate during an ill-fated attempt to win his way back into the governor’s mansion.

“I think for Senator Taddeo to be successful, she’s going to have to occupy a lane and also have to capture the imagination of the Democratic electorate through messaging and herself and her story,” said Miami-based Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. But he warned that Taddeo has just 10 months to raise money against two better-funded candidates.

Earlier this month, Taddeo’s political committee, Fight Back Florida PAC, announced a slate of consulting firms that have run research, polling, ads and mail programs with Democrats in battleground races across the country. And on Friday, the committee announced a group of new hires who’ve worked on progressive causes and campaigns in Florida, including Jackie Lee, President Joe Biden’s Florida state director in 2020, and Millie Raphael, who worked as Senior Hispanic adviser for former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. But her committee reported less than $250,000 on hand last month, a fraction of what Crist and Fried have available to spend.

“But as we saw in 2018,” Amandi said, referring to the surprise Democratic gubernatorial primary victory of Gillum, an underfunded and embattled candidate, “anything is possible.”

Taddeo will be at a significant fundraising disadvantage during the 2022 legislative session, when she will be forbidden to raise money by the Legislature’s rules. But she said Monday her work in the session, which runs from mid-January to mid-March, will be a campaign asset in the end, because voters will see she is fighting for them in Tallahassee.

Taddeo, who represents Florida’s Senate District 40 in West Miami-Dade County, was first elected to her seat in a 2017 special election triggered by the resignation of state Sen. Frank Artiles, after it emerged he used a racist slur while speaking to Black colleagues in the Florida capitol. Taddeo, a Colombian American, became the first Democratic Latina elected to the Florida Senate.

Prior to that victory, Taddeo had endured a string of losses. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2008 and again in 2016, when former Congressman Joe Garcia beat her in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 26th congressional district before losing in November to former U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican. Taddeo lost a county commission race in 2010.

Then in 2014, Taddeo was picked by her now-opponent Crist to be his running mate. That put her in position to become the state’s first Latina lieutenant governor, a glass ceiling that was shattered four years later by Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nuñez.

Crist choosing Taddeo helped — at least partially — to elevate her profile statewide. Previously a little-known business owner in Miami who wanted to improve her party’s outreach toward Latinos as the local chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, she became a polished and formidable surrogate for Crist in Florida’s Hispanic communities who was also taken seriously by Miami’s Hispanic Republican leaders.

“She’s a remarkable woman and a classic American success story,” Crist said in 2014 during his announcement. “She truly is an American dream come true.”

Though the bid was ultimately unsuccessful, headlines at the time described Taddeo as an “asset” to Crist and an excellent fundraiser as he campaigned against the Republican incumbent, then-Gov. Rick Scott, whose lieutenant governor at the time was Carlos López-Cantera, a Cuban American from Miami-Dade.

A Florida story

Born in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, in 1967, Taddeo fled to Alabama as a teenager with her family after her father, an Italian American from New Jersey, was briefly kidnapped by the Colombian FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization that Taddeo said had taken over her town and her family’s farm.

Still, she’s not unfamiliar to attacks from Republicans calling her a communist. In the 2017 special state senate election, when her Republican opponent called her a sympathizer of socialist regimes in a campaign ad, Taddeo said she decided to be much more explicit about her background and her father’s story.

“It really was very upsetting, personally to me, to my mom,” Taddeo said. “One day I was shopping for uniforms for the next school year and the next day I was in Alabama.”

Taddeo hopes her “Florida story” will resonate with voters across the state.

“My story is a story of believing in the American dream,” she said. “There’s so many experiences in my life. Moving to Alabama and having to learn English but also living that very Southern (life) in the Bible Belt of America and loving it, frankly.”

Beyond a tough primary for Taddeo, Democrats are facing a scenario where they’ll have to play catch-up with voter registration efforts, as Republicans ramp up their ground game. Democrats hold an advantage of roughly 24,000 active, registered voters over Republicans. Little more than a decade ago, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Florida by more than 500,000.

Another issue for Democrats in the general election is addressing the swell of support that Republicans gained among Hispanic supporters throughout Florida in 2020, especially in Miami-Dade County.

“Clearly, it’s concerning,” Taddeo said. “But we also need to have the right people speaking to those voters about what it means to be a Democrat, why they should register Democrats, why they should vote for Democrats in a way that actually brings them towards us.”

Fried and Crist have both been making early investments with Hispanic communities by meeting with leaders in the Cuban, Colombian, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan communities around the state.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Miami congresswoman who was the first South American immigrant to serve in Congress, said she considers Fried, Crist and Taddeo to be good friends and she hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race.

But she did say she recognized the importance of Taddeo jumping into the gubernatorial race.

“I really think that we need more Hispanic women in positions of power,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “The Hispanic vote is going to be extremely important in 2022 and all election cycles, and the candidate that can speak to the Hispanic community the best is going to have a better chance of moving them and getting them to turn out in the future election.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this story.