To Florida’s robust gun lobby, State Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla might appear like a natural ally. He is 53 years old, a concealed carry permit holder, and a member of both the National Rifle Association and the GOP.
“And to Florida Republicans in the state legislature,” says Dan Gelber, former Democratic leader in the state House, “supporting the National Rifle Association is like breathing air.”
Yet last Tuesday, for the second time in a month, Diaz de la Portilla broke with his party’s traditional fealty to the NRA and single-handedly denied the organization a vote on a top legislative priority. The first bill he buried in late January, would have allowed concealed carry permit holders to bring their handguns onto state college campuses. The second would have granted licensed gun owners the right to openly carry their weapons in public.
Diaz de la Portilla first shelved the campus carry bill last spring, during his first session as Chair of the Judiciary Committee. At the time, he succinctly explained his decision to the Miami Herald.
“I really don’t think it is a good idea for a 21-year-old at a frat keg party to be packing heat,” he said.
In return, Marion Hammer, Florida’s strong-willed gun lobbyist, promised a long fight ahead. “The things that were worth working on this year will be worth working on next year,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. “All of these good pieces of legislation will be back until they pass.”
This year, both campus carry and open carry had to clear Diaz de la Portilla’s Judiciary Committee. In his role as Chair, he controls the committee’s schedule. If he does not like a bill, he can leave it off the calendar; if a bill is never put up for a committee vote, it can’t move forward to the full chamber, and is effectively dead. By refusing to schedule a hearing for either bill, he accepted full responsibility for thwarting the gun lobby’s agenda.
“There is no question that the NRA is a powerful lobby that intimidates a number of Republican lawmakers. But we should stand up for what we think is right,” Diaz de la Portilla tells The Trace. “You’d be surprised by the number of Republican lawmakers from both chambers who thanked me. They said they were glad they wouldn’t have to make that tough decision.”
One Florida open carry enthusiast posted on a website, “When I’m carrying concealed I feel like my ‘teeth’ are hidden, and thus of no real deterrent value.”
Florida is nicknamed the “Gunshine” State because its legislature often serves as a laboratory for the innovative expansion of gun rights. The NRA is represented there by 78-year-old Marion Hammer, who once served as the organization’s president and remains one of its most effective lobbyists. Since 1999, Florida has passed over 30 pro-gun bills. In 2005, it became the first state with a “Stand Your Ground” law on its books. Three years later, Marco Rubio, then House speaker, crossed the NRA after he’d slowed the passage of a gun bill that allowed licensed concealed carriers to take their guns to work. Hammer bad-mouthed him in the press, and her organization dropped his grade from an A to a B+. He has spent the last six years working hard to raise his grade in order to be a viable Republican candidate for president.
Now Hammer is being openly undermined by Diaz de la Portilla, a handsome Cuban-American who wears rimless glasses that give him the technocratic air of a land-use lawyer, which he is. A member of one of South Florida’s most prominent political families, his public service began in the 1990s, when he held a seat on Miami-Dade’s County Commission. His younger brothers, Alex and Renier, have each served in the legislature. In 2010, after Alex’s term limit ran out, Diaz de la Portilla took over his brother’s seat in the Senate. The family’s patriarch, Miguel Sr., aided the CIA in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs, and blamed John F. Kennedy for its failure, instilling an allegiance to the Republican Party in his sons.
Though Diaz de la Portilla’s district leans Democratic, that doesn’t mean his actions against two pro-gun bills were politically safe.
“We received tons of calls from people identifying themselves as NRA members,” he says. “I was personally attacked. Somehow they got ahold of a database that listed my past donors and fundraisers and sent letters to them saying I didn’t support Second Amendment rights.”
Campus carry was reintroduced at the start of the legislative session this fall — Florida Students for Concealed Carry, one of the measure’s chief proponents, tirelessly lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the bill — along with legislation allowing open carry, which lawmakers had also previously debated. Despite its history, Florida remains only one of five states where the open carry remains illegal.
Supporters framed the bills as public safety measures. In August, on an NRA news program, Hammer said that a “gun-free zone campus” is “a sanctuary where criminals can rape and commit mass murder without out fear of resistance.” On the website Florida Open Carry, which extols potential virtues of publicly displayed sidearms, a writer explains, “When I’m carrying concealed I feel like my ‘teeth’ are hidden, and thus of no real deterrent value.”
Diaz de la Portilla rejected those arguments with the same logic, concluding that, “In either case, the dangers outweigh any perceived benefits.”
When dealing with campus carry, he took meetings with university presidents, college police chiefs, faculty members, and students from around the state. All of them voiced their opposition to the bill. But the measure’s most influential opponent was perhaps John Thrasher, president of Florida State University.
For Thrasher, the issue was personal. Before taking a position at FSU, he was a Republican state senator who had opposed a campus-carry measure in 2011. That same year, while he was serving as the Chair of the Rules Committee, an FSU student named Ashley Cowie was accidentally shot and killed in a fraternity house. Cowie was the daugher of one of Thrasher’s close friends, and he had recruited her to come to the school.
“That story really resonated with me,” Diaz de la Portilla says.
The open carry bill, meanwhile, was opposed by law enforcement officials from around the state. They told him that, with the passage of open carry, their jobs would be exponentially more difficult. Business leaders, for their part, worried about the impact it might have on tourism.
“Do you really think it’s a good idea to allow people to openly carry handguns in crime-ridden neighborhoods?” he asks, paraphrasing the concerns. “It makes it pretty hard for cops to pick out good guys from bad guys. And what impression are you creating for visitors? Do you want tourists thinking this is the O.K. Corral?”
It’s not clear whether the bills would have passed had Diaz de la Portilla allowed them to come up for vote, but there are 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate, and approval for either measure would have required only a simple majority.
“Gun bills almost always pass,” says Gelber, the former Democratic Senate leader.
Diaz de la Portilla is up for re-election this year. If he loses to a Democratic challenger, that might clear the way for both bills to finally become law, since no one will be there to block it from heading to the floor for a vote. And if he wins, he may still lose his chair. During the 2017 session there will be a new Senate President, a Republican named Joe Negron. He can appoint someone else to lead the committee, which could remove the last line of defense between the two bills and a vote. Either possibility raises serious concerns for the opposition.
“There’s no way to kill these bills once and for all,” says Matthew Lata, an FSU professor who fought hard against campus carry.
Hammer has vowed that campus and open carry will return in 2017. Diaz de la Portilla has only heard from her by way of email. She has never called him or visited his office, perhaps because she assumed she didn’t have to. Recently, she wrote him to make the case that open carry was working in Texas, where the law went into effect this January. He was unmoved by the new rationale, just as he had been by prior pro-campus carry lobbying.
“I said I think it’s a little early to tell,” he recalls. “And I don’t know what the definition of ‘working’ is.”
[Photo: AP Photo/Steve Cannon]