Commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz

After a DUI arrest, Miami-Dade commissioner embraced by police

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Commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz
Commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz had a press conference at his home two days after a Sept. 19 arrest on DUI charges. Hector Gabino EL NEUVO HERALD

In the days after Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz was arrested on charges of drunken driving, a county law-enforcement group went online with a petition about the incident. The message from Miami-Dade’s Hispanic Police Officers Association: We support Diaz.

“Thousands of residents join Commissioner Diaz at rallies, and ceremonies for fallen police officers, such as at the ‘Support Our Police’ motorcycle ride and rally,” the association’s executive board wrote in a petition urging Gov. Rick Scott not to suspend Diaz from office. “He is a remarkably valuable individual to the community.”

A swing vote on the 13-member commission and a labor ally, Diaz, 55, has not lacked for support after the arrest that charged him with racing his Harley-Davidson at more than twice the speed limit down a Key West highway. The president of Miami-Dade’s transit union wrote Diaz to say he was “very disturbed” to learn of the Sept. 19 arrest, but called the incident a “bump in the road” that “in no way diminishes your impressive accomplishments over the years.”

“We support you through this time of uncertainty, Mr. Commissioner,” Clarence Washington, head of the Transportation Workers Union, wrote in a Sept. 22 letter. “Pepe Diaz has always been a very labor-friendly commissioner,” Washington said Friday. “He made a mistake. Who hasn’t?”

The District 12 commissioner faces his first court hearing Monday, but a spokesman said Diaz won’t be appearing. Brian Andrews, the media consultant fielding questions for the four-term commissioner, said Diaz’s lawyer would enter a plea on his behalf for the charge of driving under the influence, which carries a maximum penalty of nine months in jail. Andrews said he did not know what the plea would be.

Some Diaz foes saw an opening after his Sept. 19 arrest. Local Democrats began quietly making inquiries for potential District 12 candidates in the hopes that the governor might create a vacancy by suspending Diaz, according to two sources close to the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Two days after Diaz’s arrest, a pro-pets advocacy group that tried to unseat Diaz last year launched an email drive urging residents to launch a recall campaign against him.

“Do you really want someone like this representing your district?” Pets’ Voice leaders Michael Rosenfeld and Rita Schwartz wrote in an email that included Diaz’s mugshot and the slogan “Pepe Drinks … Pets Die.” The Pets’ Voice advocacy group ran a candidate against Diaz last year over his opposition to a special tax for animal services.

 Scott hasn’t mentioned the Diaz arrest, and a spokesman said the governor’s legal office is still reviewing the matter. But county officials privately doubt Diaz faces the risk of a suspension, given that state law governing misdemeanor arrests would require Scott to conclude the offense was related to the commissioner’s public position. A Democratic source said the effort to find a District 12 candidate fizzled shortly after it began.

Diaz, an avid Harley rider, was in Key West for the annual Poker Run motorcycle party. Police pulled him over shortly after 7 p.m. for going 74 mph in a 30-mph-zone near mile-marker 1.

After spending a night in jail, Diaz returned to his Sweetwater home and summoned reporters to declare he was “extremely sorry” without offering specifics. In his official correspondence, obtained by The Miami Herald through a public records request, Diaz received a mix of encouraging words from well-placed individuals, and sharp condemnation from what appeared to be everyday residents.

“We don’t need people like you representing Miami-Dade,” someone named George wrote the day after Diaz’s arrest. “It is yet another black eye for the County who can’t seem to get people into office who will put constituents first.”

“Dear Pepe,” the Rev. Alberto Cutié wrote in an email. “Just wanted you to know you are in my prayers and I want you to know you have my full support.”

Diaz’s arrest was captured by the body cameras that Key West recently issued to its police officers. Miami-Dade’s police union resisted Miami-Dade purchasing similar equipment, and Diaz was one of only two commissioners to vote against them in June. From the commission dais, Diaz frequently mentions his strong support for police, and he carried that theme after being pulled over in Key West.

Diaz didn’t have his driver’s license and introduced himself to officers as “Commissioner Diaz from Miami-Dade County” and later as the “most pro-police guy there is.” Surveillance footage captured an officer responding, “Pro-police or not, you had no business driving a motorcycle tonight.”

In its petition, the Miami-based Hispanic Police Officers Association said that Diaz “has always shown 100 percent support to our police officers.” The association, a nonprofit that includes Miami-Dade officers and retirees, did not respond to requests for comment. As of Friday, the online petition had nearly 1,200 supporters. Some officers wrote to Diaz directly.

“Just wanted to let you know that not only am I here showing you support, but you have thousands of people behind you as well,” Officer Miguel Ruiz wrote Diaz on Sept. 23 from his Yahoo account. “You are one of the few that show us Police Officers 100% of support, now is our turn to show it to YOU.”

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