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South Florida activists collect thousands of petitions against insurance rate hikes

Irina and Carmen Vilarino make an unlikely pair of political activists. The sisters help run their family business -- 18 restaurants in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties -- and have never been to the state Capitol to talk to lawmakers about anything.

But on Friday, the two flew from Miami to Tampa and from Tampa to Tallahassee lugging a box full of what they said were thousands of petitions neatly wrapped with rubber bands. Their goal: to keep lawmakers from approving proposals that could result in insurance-rate hikes.

For about two weeks, the Vilarino sisters have put out petitions at their restaurants (including La Casita and Las Vegas), made them available online and gone on Spanish-language radio and television urging residents to send legislators a message: "No more," Irina Vilarino said.

The sisters said they heard Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, decrying the insurance bills, SB 408 and SB 1714, earlier this month on Spanish media. The Vilarinos then poured tens of thousands of their  own money, they said, into their petition-gathering campaign. They hope to collect some 100,000, even with only a week left in the legislative session.

The two said they were inspired by last month's landslide recall of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and County Commissioner Natacha Seijas.

"If they pass the law, we're going to catch them on the rebound," Irina Vilarino said.

On Friday, Flores took the Vilarinos -- carting along their petitions -- around the Capitol and to the office of Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican and head of the Miami-Dade delegation. The sisters later met with lawmakers outside of the House chambers.

But they are not leaving their petitions in Tallahassee: They are taking them back to South Florida in the hopes that they'll be able to meet their 100,000 goals. Their visit, they said, was intended to remind legislators about the consequences of proposals under their consideration.

"It seems that the rich are getting richer," Irina Vilarino said, "and the middle class is getting extinct."