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The Marlins stadium saga and Miami's hot Senate GOP primary

@PatriciaMazzei

The tweets exchanged Sunday between two Miami Republicans running to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles seemed simple enough.

Former Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla opposed public funding for a potential Major League Soccer stadium. His opponent, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a lawyer and registered County Hall lobbyist for the investors pitching the stadium, is trailing the well-known Diaz de la Portilla in early polls.

Diaz replied to Diaz de la Portilla with a couple of links to stories from 2006 and 2007, when Diaz de la Portilla favored legislative proposals to benefit the Marlins' quest for a baseball stadium.

But like all campaign scuffles over the Marlins' stadium -- perhaps the single most polarizing issue in recent Miami political history -- things are more complicated than they seem.

Prepare to burrow down the stadium-politics rabbit hole.

In 2007, Diaz de la Portilla filed a bill giving the Marlins -- who then shared the Miami Dolphins' stadium in Miami Gardens -- a $60 million state tax subsidy over 30 years so the county could build the ballclub a $490 million, publicly owned stadium.

Critics derided it as corporate welfare, unfair because the previous Marlins owner, Wayne Huizenga, won the subsidy in 1994 to retrofit the Dolphins stadium for baseball. Once a team qualified for the subsidy, it would get the state funds even if they didn't generate $2 million in annual sales taxes.

"This is the year," Diaz de la Portilla said at the start of session, echoing much of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation. "It's a question of pride for our whole community."

The proposal passed in the House, led by then-Speaker Marco Rubio, a West Miami Republican, who had sought a Marlins stadium since his 2000 election. But the bill went nowhere in the Senate, where another Miami-Dade Republican, then-Sen. Rudy Garcia of Hialeah, had instead proposed giving the Marlins and two other professional sports teams a one-time payment of $32.6 million each.

Diaz de la Portilla declared the House bill -- which mirrored his own legislation -- "dead." And by the end of session, he was fine with that: The struggling economy was forcing lawmakers to cut up to $120 million in aid to the mentally and physically disabled, and Diaz de la Portilla said a stadium deal shouldn't be a priority.

"Before we take care of billionaires, we need to take care of the neediest and poorest citizens," he said at the time.

That was 2007.

In 2006, Diaz de la Portilla worked quietly with Garcia and then-Sen. Alex Villalobos, a Miami Republican, to tack the $60 million tax subsidy for the Marlins onto a bill guaranteeing the Orlando Magic basketball team the same type of tax break, two days before the end of the annual lawmaking session.

"We have 22 votes here and if the Senate president votes for it we have 23," Diaz de la Portilla said at the time. "Clearly, this is the best shot the Marlins have had in years."

Diaz de la Portilla had helped block Villalobos from becoming the first Cuban-American Senate president in 2008. But the two lawmakers made nice for the 2006 Marlins effort.

"When things are important to Miami-Dade County, we should work together," Diaz de la Portilla said. "This will help bring the chamber together...it will keep the Marlins in Florida." (The Marlins had talked about moving to San Antonio.)

The three senators' effort failed.

That was 2006.

In 2005, Diaz de la Portilla opposed the $60 million subsidy, voting against it in its last Senate committee and questioning its economic value. As the senator from the Little Havana neighborhood that would house the stadium, Diaz de la Portilla was unconvinced about parking and plans to remove residents from their nearby homes.

"The Orange Bowl has never delivered," Diaz de la Portilla said at the time. "Years later, all we've got is a couple of seedy, low-end bars and some relatively high rates of crime."

The measure never came up for a Senate vote.

That was 2005.

In 2004, the year after the Marlins won their second World Series as an underdog, Diaz de la Portilla declared himself skeptical of the team's requested tax break.

"They came to us with three weeks left in the session, without all their ducks in a row, saying, 'Give us money,'" Diaz de la Portilla said at the time. He also suggested, however, that he could be persuaded to back the plan -- which his foe, Villalobos, didn't like.

"It's still on life support, " Diaz de la Portilla said. "But we are entering Easter now, and if you're a Christian like I am, you believe in the resurrection."

That was 2004.

In 2002, Diaz de la Portilla attacked his Republican primary opponent, Rep. Carlos Lacasa, for supporting public funding for a Marlins stadium.

In 2001, Diaz de la Portilla opposed a Marlins stadium financing effort, different from the $60 million tax subsidy. He wrote then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig why the league wouldn't help finance the project.

"Why aren't the players -- who pay no state income tax and a relatively low intangibles tax in Florida -- part of the finance plan?" the senator wrote. "In the face of one of the tightest state budget pictures in recent years, a city of Miami in dire financial straits, and a Miami-Dade County with increasing property tax rates, explain to me how I can be expected to meet the needs of the citizens I represent and also build a new stadium for the Marlins."

In an interview with a Miami Herald reporter at the time, Diaz de la Portilla pulled out copies of Herald articles from 1997, the year he helped defeat a sales-tax rebate for Dolphins owner Huizenga, who wanted to renovate Prop Player Stadium.

"Our position has been consistent all along," Diaz de la Portilla said. "We shouldn't give millionaires tax breaks."

The night the 2001 session ended without a Marlins vote, Diaz de la Portilla hugged his aide and his brother, Miguel, in celebration.

"I think the state has serious problems that need to be addressed, and those priorities clearly aren't building a baseball stadium," Diaz de la Portilla said. 

Diaz de la Portilla's foes said his 1997 opposition to Huizenga's request was for political reasons.

In 1996, Diaz de la Portilla, who was then in the House, sided with Hialeah Republican Rep. Luis Rojas and House Democrats in a renegade bid to become Florida's first Cuban-American speaker. They broke with Villalobos and then-state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who felt betrayed and publicly denounced Rojas and Diaz de la Portilla.

The next year, it was Villalobos and Diaz-Balart who spearheaded the Marlins' effort.

As for Diaz: 

In 2014, he voted for a bill that allowed professional sports teams to compete for new sales tax subsidies to help fund stadium construction and renovations.

In 2013, he voted against giving the Dolphins up to $200 million in tax incentives to help renovate their stadium.

In 2012, he sponsored a proposal -- likely running afoul of the Florida Constitution -- saving the city of Miami from being on the hook for a huge property-tax bill for its Marlins stadium parking garages.  

This post has been updated.

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