For much of the past week, Darren Dione Aquino was on the phone badgering the Justice Department. He needed enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding a Fort Myers veteran whose service dog was taken away.
Within a few days, the veteran was reunited with her dog. It didn’t directly advance his candidacy in Florida’s 19th Congressional District. But it proved the power of the Advocates for Disabled Americans, Veterans, Police, Firemen & Families, a group Aquino has headed for years.
“Folks are saying, well, you’ve got a crowded field. I know,” said Aquino, one of eight Republicans filed in the race. “But who’s got 35 years’ experience in civil rights and fighting for people’s needs? None of them, right? Not one.”
Aquino filed in early December. Mostly through a $10,000 loan to the campaign and donations from friends and loved ones, he’s raised about $21,000 for the race. He’s already spent about $5,000 on startup marketing materials.
While most of his competitors have yet to file reports, he’s unlikely to rank high in cash on hand. Former Minnesota Rep. Dan Severson put in a $100,000 candidate loan and closed 2019 with $103,169. State Rep. Dane Eagle raised more than $100,000 in his first 24 hours after filing for Congress in November.
Aquino will face Eagle, Severson, Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson and state Reps. Heather Fitzenhagen and Byron Donalds in the GOP primary, all of whom have run successful campaigns in the past. He will also face Ford O’Connell, a pundit who has appeared on national outlets like Fox News, and William Figlesthaler, a Naples urologist who has suggested he’ll put seven figures of his own money into the race.
But Aquino hopes to land some heavyweight endorsements and rally support from a political network in New York. He previously ran in 2017 for New York City Mayor against Bill de Blasio, but lost in the GOP primary to Nicole Malliotakis.
In that race he boasted the support from former President George W. Bush, He knew the Republican leader through his advocacy for veterans on the national level. He’d love to get some Bush support for his congressional candidacy, something sure to garner attention.
Aquino has other resources too. Active for years in New York Republican politics, he expects some support from the Empire State. His family for years has run Rao’s Restaurant, one of the most famous restaurants in the city. And his cousin founded Arizona Iced Tea Company and also now lives in Florida.
He also has a national network of veterans, many of whom live in Southwest Florida. While Aquino’s a recent transplant to Naples, his organization has been working with veterans in the region for a decade.
In his apartment, he shows off letters on White House stationary he received from both Presidents George W. and George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and even one from Bill Clinton.
“He wrote me because I sent him a chew-you-out letter, and he wrote back saying ‘Yes, together we can change America,’” Aquino explained of his Democratic correspondence.
The son of Democrats, he became involved in Republican politics through his advocacy. When Reagan’s White House started taking his calls and championing his cause, he became a member of the GOP in the 20s and hasn’t looked back. While he never met the Gipper, First Lady Nancy Reagan gifted him a framed and numbered collection of photos from the President’s funeral.
His work led him to meetings with powerful figures in the federal government.
He’s had personal meetings with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and current Justice Sonia Sotomayor; he’s got a soft spot for the Democratic appointee as half his family is Puerto Rican and she’s the first Latina justice on the high court.
Through his New York connections Aquino also knows Donald Trump, who he still recalls rocking a baby Ivanka during a visit to Rao’s. Watching impeachment proceedings now, he gets angry at the rhetoric. “This guy they are trying to portray is nothing like the man at all,” he said.
Will any of this translate to success at the voting booth? Aquino faces pols who have been on the ballot In Florida before. But he hopes to get enough one-on-one time with voters to show them his heart.
“You see real Republicans down here,” he said. “The ladies groups are outstanding. I joined my first group and it was the Women’s Republican Club with my wife.
“But I’ve been at this for a decade, and I know what’s going on. I know what I should say and shouldn’t say. And I know the needs of the disabled. This is a retirement stage. The politics here, there’s a few shady people everywhere, but the majority of people have integrity. And I’m doing everything I can to show them I do as well.”