First-time candidates spar for Senate seat representing swath of southeast Miami-Dade

Neither has served in an elected government role before.

Two first-time candidates for public office — Republican Alexis Calatayud and Democrat Janelle Perez — are competing for the open Senate District 38 seat representing a sizable swath of southeast Miami-Dade County.

On the surface, they have more than a few things in common. Both are women of Cuban descent who previously worked as GOP staffers. Both are Florida International University graduates.

Neither faced a Primary challenger on her way to the General Election. And while one represents team red and the other blue, both are green in terms of elected service — something each aims to change with a Nov. 8 victory.

SD 38 covers several coastal Miami-Dade municipalities, including Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay, Pinecrest, South Miami, parts of Homestead and Coral Gables, and the unincorporated neighborhoods of Goulds, Kendall, Perrine, Redland, Sunset and Westchester.

Perez should still hold an advantage in the district, which leaned Democratic in 2020, when voters there chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 7 percentage points, according to an MCI Maps analysis. But Florida’s GOP-favoring voter registration numbers indicate that edge is likely to be smaller now.


Perez also has a marked monetary advantage. Since filing for public office back in August 2021, she’s raised about $1 million between her campaign account and political committee, Democracy and Freedom. The Florida Democratic Party added to that sum with nearly $131,000 worth of in-kind assistance, mostly for campaign staff costs.

A significant portion of Perez’s gains came through grassroots giving, a fundraising approach she said told Florida Politics she favored when she initially filed to run for Congress. She switched to a state race a month and a half later.

Calatayud collected about $628,000 between her campaign account and political committee, Vision & Integrity for Florida, since launching her bid for state office in March.

She also received more than $200,000 worth of in-kind aid from the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee for polling, staffing and consulting expenses, among other things.


Perez, 35, holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from FIU and a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University, according to her LinkedIn Page. She works in private life as co-owner of her family’s managed health care business,

She began her political career working under former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican who served for 30 uninterrupted years as the first Cuban American to serve in Congress.

The daughter of Cuban exiles, Perez grew up in a conservative Miami family but left the Republican Party about seven years ago after beating stage 4 follicular lymphoma.

She’s an active member of the LGBTQ community, having served on two local advisory boards, including as the inaugural chair of the Miami LGBTQ+ Advisory Board, and she has a young daughter with her wife, Monica.

That aspect of her life and the issues she encountered battling cancer put her in diametric opposition with several broadly held GOP positions, she said, and prompted her to depart for the Democratic Party.

Calatayud, 28, is a self-described “lifelong Republican” who worked as a campaign manager and legislative aide of outgoing Miami state Rep. Vance Aloupis. She originally filed to succeed him in the House before a reshuffling of races within the Florida GOP reset her sights on SD 38.

She also spent time working for former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Prior to running for office this year, she worked as director of public policy and programs for the Florida Department of Education.

Calatayud graduated from FIU, where she served two terms as student body president and a university trustee, with a double major in political science and international relations. Her LinkedIn page shows she is currently enrolled in a public leadership credential course at Harvard University.


Perez and Calatayud share several policy priorities, but with different focuses. Both want to protect the environment and help small businesses thrive.

To help Floridians’ bank accounts, Calatayud said she wants to reduce homeowner insurance premiums and permanently cut gas and holiday taxes throughout the state, while Perez prioritizes expanding access to “affordable, high-quality” health care.

Perez also wants to improve access to education, including broadening options to early and post-high-school educational options. Calatayud backs school choice — which, among other things, means providing further support to privately run but publicly funded charter schools — boosting teacher salaries, investing in vocational programs to upskill Florida’s workforce and improving safety on school campuses.

Perez is alone in voicing her support for women’s reproductive rights. She also backs increased background checks on gun sales, a ban on “military-style assault rifles” and requiring licenses for gun ownership.


Of the two candidates, Perez heads to Election Day with an edge in personal and organizational endorsements. She’s received nods from Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo, who is running for Congress, and former U.S. Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala and Charlie Crist, who is running for Governor.

Former state Rep. Javier Fernández, who is running for South Miami Mayor, also supports her.

Groups backing her bid include Giffords, EMILY’s List, SAVE, Equality Florida, SEIU Florida, AFSCME, South Florida AFL-CIO, LPAC, Victory Fund, Ruth’s List Florida, The Next 50, Moms Demand, Run For Something and the South Florida Council of Firefighters.

Meanwhile, Calatayud is running with endorsements from Senate President Wilton Simpson, Senate President-designate Kathleen Passidomo, Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Sen. Ben Albritton, who is in line to become President of the chamber for the 2024-26 term.

She enjoys organizational support from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Metro Dade Firefighters Local 1493, Associated Industries of Florida, South Florida Police Benevolent Association and the Florida East Coast chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.


The candidates’ campaigns remained largely respectful of one another this year. That changed in recent months, when the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee ran ads, sent text messages and launched a website painting Perez as a “trust fund millionaire,” “out-of-touch opportunist” and “wannabe political insider.”

One video alleged Perez’s company “profits most by denying medical claims for seniors” and bashed her campaign for mailers the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee sent voters with images of Republican Senate candidate Corey Simon, a Black man, and children overlayed on shooting targets.

Perez’s campaign, in turn, complained the FRSCC ads and texts exploited images of her taken immediately after she’d overcome cancer, before she’d regrown her hair, and shared her personal — but publicly available — phone number.

Perez said she received hundreds of threats, some involving murder, as a result of her number being publicized.

Calatayud’s campaign said parties working on Perez’s behalf are guilty of doing the same thing, pointing to texts purportedly sent sharing Calatyud’s personal — and also publicly available — phone number with recipients.

Early voting in Miami-Dade is now underway.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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