Of the three new members of Congress elected from Orlando this month, Democrat Darren Soto is the one who’s no mystery to constituents, and still committed to the same agenda he’s pursued for nearly 10 years in the Florida Legislature: a stronger, fairer economy.
Soto, 38, an Orlando lawyer, defeated Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky for the open seat to represent Florida’s 9th Congressional District, covering south Orlando, southern Orange County, Osceola County, and eastern Polk County. He heads for Congress as the veteran rookie of Orlando’s congressional delegation, someone with a clear track record of lawmaking who’s not talking about wavering from it.
Soto becomes the first member of Congress with Puerto Rican roots to be elected from Florida and the first Hispanic member from Central Florida. That’s important considering the makeup of CD 9, where the Puerto Rican-dominated Hispanic community is nearly a majority and growing. And it’s important to Soto, who grew up constantly interacting with family coming and going from the island. But it doesn’t change Soto’s approach.
His first task, seeking committee appointments to reflect what he’d been pursuing in Tallahassee: growth in high-tech jobs and protection of the environment.
That also includes seeking to replace some of the clout that his predecessor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, and Orlando’s other former representatives, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, John Mica, and Dan Webster exerted, particularly in addressing the roads, highways, railways, and other needs of the growing area. Now, Orlando will be represented by Democratic freshmen Soto, Val Demings, and Stephanie Murphy.
“We hope to get on committees that can help with high-tech jobs in our economy in Central Florida,” Soto said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com. “I hope to also continue our good work on the environment. And in addition we are hopeful I can help with the growing infrastructure needs that we have here in Central Florida.”
Getting I-4 finished. Expanding SunRail. Upgrading the Kissimmee and Lake Wales airports with air traffic control towers. Pursuing the Kissimmee River restoration plans.
“Certainly, I’ve sought out committees that would help in those three areas,” Soto added. “As well as, the Democrats pushing for our version of an infrastructure package, which potentially all parties can agree upon.”
Except for his views on social and environmental issues, Soto has largely been a more moderate member of the Florida Democratic Party. While he led a Democratic insurrection to seek gun law reforms after the June 12 Pulse massacre in Orlando, in Tallahassee he sided with gun lobby proposals often enough that his Democratic primary opponents threw that in his face.
He defeated two prominent progressives in the election, former ally Susannah Randolph, and Dina Grayson, wife of the outgoing incumbent.
Soto’s been around. He came up as part of a new, younger generation of Democrats that came together 12 years ago in Orange and Osceola counties, in an environment that saw the area’s base of low-wage, hospitality-industry economics as a top concern. With his future chief of staff and campaign manager Christine Alkenavich Biron, Tracy Sumner Brooks, Vivian Rodriguez, Susannah’s husband Scott Randolph, and a handful of others they began to transform the Young Democrats from a small, depressing group into a force.
At age 28, Soto first tried to run against Republican state Rep. Andy Gardiner in House District 40, knowing all along, he said, he could not possibly win. But the experience helped and the following year he won a six-way Democratic primary and a close general election to be elected in House District 49, to replace Republican state Rep. John Quinones who had resigned mid-term to become a county commissioner. Two re-elections later, Soto coasted into the Florida Senate in District 14 in 2012.
And as soon as congressional redistricting made CD 9 a near-majority Hispanic district in 2011, Soto was seen as a likely future candidate, presumably as soon as Alan Grayson stepped aside, which he did this year, seeking to run for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat.
Besides Brooks, Rodriguez, and Biron, his trusted political advisors include Iza Montalvo, his law partner Nicole McLaren, and Democratic party leaders Jimmy Auffant and Doug Head. He’s also had close ties with Lonnie Thompson, Linda Stewart, Bill Segal, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
“Buddy has shown that an independent-minded, pro-growth Democrat can be very successful in our region,” he said.
Soto grew up on in small-town New Jersey and watched his father, who was Puerto Rican, work to support his family and go to night school to get a college education. That dedication stuck, and he did much the same thing, going to Rutgers University, and then on to law school at George Washington University.
Many of his Puerto Rico family members moved from the island to Central Florida in the 1990s. Darren joined them when a distant relative offered him his first job out of law school.
“I fell in love with the place. It changed my life,” he said.
He met his wife Amanda, a teacher, through a blind date set up by Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler. The two plan to split their time between Washington D.C. and a new home they intend to move into in Celebration.
When he’s not legislating, you might find Soto making music, as a singer-guitarist in a folk-rock band called the Orange Creek Riders.
Soto said he quickly came to terms with the election of Republican Donald Trump as president. As a state lawmaker, he’s dealt with Republican governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.
“Now,” he said, “I’m ready to help lead the resistances, as need be.”