Article by JESSICA BAKEMAN for wlrn.org
Esteemed former Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón headlined a Tuesday night campaign fundraiser for an alumna who once worked in his office and is now running for her first elected post: a seat on the Miami-Dade County School Board.
The 2020 race for the school board district representing south Miami-Dade is expected to draw at least four contenders — including a longtime MDC administrator whose son was lieutenant governor under Republican Rick Scott.
Padrón had to walk a fine line on politics, largely remaining neutral, while he led the massive institution for nearly a quarter century and then retired earlier this year. He doesn’t see lending his support to school board candidate Luisa Santos as a deviation from that posture.
To him, Santos isn’t a political candidate, he said. She’s his former student, and he’s supporting her as he would any alumnus who goes on to serve the community.
“I hope that she will be able to accomplish what she’s looking for,” Padrón said. “We need young, bright, new ideas, people who are truly commited and are passionate, and I think she has that.”
Padrón introduced Santos to the small crowd gathered at the campaign launch, an event featuring empanadas and wine at a downtown Miami art gallery.
Santos is a 29-year-old Colombian immigrant who was brought to the U.S. as a child and was undocumented for much of her life. She attended public schools in the community she’s now running to represent and then earned a two-year degree at Miami Dade College before finishing her bachelor’s in education at Georgetown University. She later returned to Miami to found Lulu’s Nitrogen Ice Cream in Edgewater.
“My journey to tonight remains unlikely,” she said. “We have so much work to do so that journeys like mine are not the exception — instead, they are inevitable. And we need to do that for every child in our classrooms today.”
While Santos is new on the local ballot, the race isn’t her first foray into politics. She appeared in a campaign ad for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and hosted phone banks for Democrat Andrew Gillum’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year. The school board race is nonpartisan.
Santos has a likely opponent in Esther “Shelly” Smith Fano, who leads MDC’s Hospitality Institute. Fano hasn’t officially joined the race yet, but the college’s board of trustees voted on Tuesday to allow her to run — a requirement for employees of the college who want to get into politics. Fano’s son is Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who served in the state Legislature and later as Scott’s second-in-command.
“Now that I have received the necessary board approval, I look forward to exploring my options over our holiday break,” Fano wrote in an email.
Padrón said Tuesday he did not know that Fano, his former employee, was considering running.
Among those who have already filed to run is Nancy Lawther, 69, a university professor and public education advocate. Lawther has held leadership positions within both the statewide and Miami-Dade County PTA organizations. She’s been endorsed by outgoing school board member Lawrence Feldman and several mayors and state legislators.
Educator and playwright Justin Koren, 37, is another candidate. He currently serves as assistant principal at Miami Killian Senior High School in Kendall.
So far, Koren has raised the most money. He has about $55,000 in his campaign coffers, compared to Lawther’s $17,000 and Santos’ $9,000, according to county campaign finance records.
A majority of school board seats — five of nine — are on the ballot next August. Three are open, with the impending departures of Feldman, Martin Karp and Susie Castillo. Steve Gallon III is running for re-election — unopposed as of now. Lubby Navarro has drawn two challengers.