The Republican leadership in Florida's biggest county is on the verge of a changing of the guard just as the GOP struggles to reinvent itself as the minority party in Washington.
Miami-Dade County Chairwoman Mary Ellen Miller, who has led the local party for most of the past 17 years, is stepping down at the end of this month. Since former Gov. Jeb Bush recruited her to become active in the party when he served as chairman in the mid-1980s, Miller's departure at the same time President Bush leaves the White House is yet another sign of the end of an era.
In a new age of texting and Twittering, the 80-year-old Miller is a throwback. She gives out her cellphone number only to family members. The home page of the local party's website still carries pictures of Jeb Bush and Ronald Reagan -- none of Gov. Charlie Crist -- and a link to 2004 election results headlined ``Florida is Bush country.''
Vying to replace the grandmother of 10, who's too modest to list her accomplishments, are two media-savvy, young guns: 43-year-old state legislator David Rivera, who worked on the January referendum to expand slot machines in Miami-Dade, and 28-year-old political consultant Carlos Curbelo, who helped steer the reelection campaigns of U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart.
Both Curbelo and Rivera are Cuban American. Rivera is closely allied with former House Speaker Marco Rubio, while Curbelo worked on the election of Rubio's sometime political nemesis, Gov. Charlie Crist. Miller has thrown her support behind Rivera and tentatively scheduled the election for Dec. 11.
The next chairman's challenge is clear: closing the gap in voter registration with the Democratic party and laying the groundwork for the reelections of Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez in 2010.
Since 2004, Miami-Dade's voter rolls have swelled to 1.2 million people, with Democrats growing by 54 percent while Republicans increased just 8 percent. Democrats now outnumber Republicans 560,250 to 384,287.
Martinez could face a tough reelection. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed him receiving approval from only 42 percent of the voters.
''We need to end the infighting now more than ever,'' Curbelo said. ``If we continue down this path soon we will have nothing to fight about.''
The contest for chairman will pit concerns over who could face more competing interests: Curbelo, who is president of his own political consulting firm, or Rivera, whose legislative job forces him to spend part of the year in Tallahassee. Term limits will force Rivera out of the House in 2010, and he's expected to run for a Senate seat.
Curbelo said if he's elected chairman, he would pledge to stay out of Republican primaries.
''I would not undertake any activity that would inhibit my ability as chairman, and if that means I have to forgo working on certain campaigns, then I will,'' Curbelo said. ``I don't think David will have the time to dedicate himself to being chairman.''
Rivera said he has already proven he can represent his district and his party by serving as Miami-Dade's Republican committeeman since 2003.
''Public service and service to the Republican party are not incompatible,'' he said. ''I will dedicate whatever time and effort is required to lead the local GOP to new heights.'' Just two months ago, Rivera bested two of his legislative colleagues to win another term as committeeman, a post that allows him to help steer the state party. His rivals estimate he spent $250,000 on the campaign, which Rivera calls an ''outrageous exaggeration,'' but he won't say how much he spent or where the money came from. State law does not require him to do so.
Earlier this month, Rivera won reelection to his legislative seat after a little-known Republican-turned-Democrat who didn't collect a single donation mysteriously withdrew the day before the election. Rivera said he doesn't know the candidate, Beatriz ''Betty'' Gaffney.