Miami's Questionable Diaz de La Portilla Dynasty Ready For Another Chapter
The photo is reminiscent of a poster for The Sopranos. Three men dressed in natty suits with slicked-back hair saunter down a dimly lit, brick-paved alley. They leave little room to pass. It seems like they are intentionally blocking someone's path. The pretty boy on the left scrunches his face as if to say, "You talking to us?" The tough guy in the middle buries his hands in his pockets as if hiding a Beretta. And the handsome little one struggles to catch up.
Photo by L. Kyle Rojas
This triumvirate forms the heart of Cuban Miami's second most prominent family after the Diaz-Balarts, who have long dominated South Florida's voice in Congress. Miguel, Alex, and Renier Diaz de la Portilla have played powerful roles from Tallahassee to county hall for more than two decades.
"Everything they do is in lockstep," says political blogger Elaine de Valle, who has used the photo in at least three posts describing the brothers on her blog Political Cortadito. "They are like a three-headed monster."
The DDLPs -- as they are nicknamed by friends and foes alike -- have been in the news recently since eldest brother Miguel was re-elected last month to the state senate without competition.
Renier, the youngest, did two stints as a school board member and a brief term as a state house representative. He recently announced a run for judge against political newcomer and assistant Miami city attorney Veronica Diaz. Alex, who previously held a state senate seat, serves as Renier's paid campaign adviser. In addition to bearing a powerful family name, Renier has racked up endorsements from high-profile politicos such as state Rep. Erik Fresen, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, and county Commissioners Xavier Suarez and Juan Carlos Zapata.
"We need Renier Diaz de la Portilla on the bench," Zapata recently proclaimed in an endorsement pitch. "He has a proven track record of competence, openness, and fairness. That is why I know he will make an outstanding judge."
But questions abound about the brothers and their father, Miguel A. Diaz. They have been involved in controversies that started with allegations of drug dealing, continued to reckless driving and ethical lapses, and ended with staggeringly large campaign fines.
Renier is the just the latest target of DDLP critics like Julio Robaina, a former state representative from South Miami. "To be a judge, you need to have the utmost level of integrity," Robaina says. "I think he falls way short."
Though Renier did not respond to two voicemail messages requesting comment and Alex could not be located, Miguel calls his family "good public servants. We are united in our love for each other and our dedication to public service... I think that there are a number of people with political agendas who like to come after us."
The DDLP family history can be traced to the early days of the Cuban revolution, when Miguel Sr. and his wife, Fabiola de la Portilla, met while working with student groups against then-dictator Fulgencio Batista. After Batista was ousted and Fidel Castro took over in 1959, the couple became disillusioned again. They fled Matanzas for Miami, where Miguel was born three years later. Fabiola gave birth to Alex and Renier in 1964 and 1971.
To make ends meet, the couple started De Mattress, a family business that still exists today. Miguel Sr. also had a side gig as a CIA employee, according to a 2000 Miami Herald profile of the family. His spook duties entailed sneaking into Cuba to wreak havoc in the runup to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Like many Cubans involved in the mission, Miguel Sr. blamed its failure on Democrat John F. Kennedy. That cemented the family's loyalty to the Republican Party.
By the early 1980s, after the CIA stopped using him, Miguel Sr. was accused of drug trafficking. A federal grand jury in 1982 indicted the family patriarch for being part of a Panama City marijuana-smuggling ring, two years after Miguel and Alex worked as volunteers on the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign. (The drug charges were eventually dropped in 1992 because of the government's failure to afford a speedy trial.)
Once their father was cleared, the brothers set out to fulfill their political ambitions. And in the beginning, they seemed to be something special. At age 30 in 1993, Miguel -- then a lawyer with a small practice -- was elected to the county commission. During the next seven years at county hall, he championed a host of reforms, from the creation of the Office of Inspector General to tightening the building code.
But his credentials weren't enough to win the county mayoral race in 2000 and 2004, when he placed third and fifth. Over the next few years, he became a lobbyist. Though from the dais he railed against influence peddlers, he was exceptionally successful. (Today he is the wealthiest brother, claiming a net worth of $770,000 in his most recent disclosure statement.)