But wasn't he scared, swimming around in the middle of a pack of sharks? Not really, says the brash young senator from suburban Miami. They won't attack unless you're hurt. After all, he adds, only half-jokingly: "Sharks are like everybody else. They're looking for a handout."
And let it be known that in Florida's Republican Senate these days, there are no free lunches - not for the sharks, and certainly not for a lot of people who have come to rely on government for help. As the cheerful, budget-chopping chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Diaz-Balart is making sure of that.
His efforts started just weeks after the GOP's takeover of the Senate in the 1994 elections, when he shocked Florida's governing class by asking each state agency to submit recommendations for 25% budget cuts. At the time, many dismissed the move as a political stunt, or worse. Some agency heads even ignored it. Faced with withering criticism in the press, Diaz-Balart himself hastened to explain that his letter was meant only to force agencies to start thinking creatively about spending instead of responding to shortfalls with shallow, across-the-board cuts.
In fact, budget-bashing senators wound up cutting only about 3% out of state spending for 1995-96. But Diaz-Balart evidently liked the results because now he's sent out a new demand for another round of cut proposals.
And this time, Diaz-Balart's demand has arrived amid a growing realization that such draconian cuts might really be required - and soon - unless Florida politicians somehow summon up the courage to change their rattletrap tax structure. Says Diaz-Balart: "I'm actually telling people, 'Remember what I was saying last year? Well, I told you so.' We're there. We are there."
Federal budget balancing is only part of the story. As Florida Trend reported ("Debt Storm Rising," August 1995), legislative budget officials project needs of $1 billion to $2 billion in excess of current revenues every year through the rest of the 1990s, even without federal budget changes. That's 2.5% to 5% of the current $40 billion state budget, an amount that will have to be chopped out of each year's spending in order to meet the state's constitutional balanced-budget obligation.
And that doesn't begin to address the $300 million to $500 million in federal cuts anticipated for Florida in 1996 or the larger reductions that Congress likely will delay until after the 1996 elections. Also left unaddressed: the question of how long the state can keep reducing its already meager services, while its population continues to soar.
Nevertheless, with a confidence that comes from being the state Senate's youngest member (now in his third year, he's only 34), Diaz-Balart insists that he's actually looking forward to the cuts. He contends that they'll benefit everyone, by forcing less dependency on government. "It's the salvation of the country," he proclaims. "Thank God we're now being forced to look at what we've been doing."
Others are considerably less confident.
For example, aides to Gov. Lawton Chiles warn that short-term cuts actually could produce more long-term costs, especially if the cutting occurs in social services, where Republicans are likely to concentrate.
Says Chiles Chief of Staff Linda Shelley: "We need to encourage people to work. But if you just cut welfare, you can't get the outcomes in later years that you're seeking. We have to be realistic about the cost of change." She terms Diaz-Balart's 25% exercise "an odd way to set priorities."
Child advocate Jack Levine goes further, arguing that Florida actually will need far more social services in the coming years. That's because the state faces a huge spike in its population of 10- to 20-year-olds over the next 15 years - proportionately, perhaps the nation's largest. It's up to state government to determine whether many of those kids go to college or to prison, he warns. Legislators like Diaz-Balart "don't seem to be looking at that," says Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Children & Youth in Tallahassee.
Still others heap more personal criticisms on Diaz-Balart. "A senator who is to good government what Joey Buttafuoco is to restraint," a Tallahassee Democrat editor harrumphed a few weeks ago. "A spoiled brat," one high-ranking Democratic official complains. "The Slasher," some lobbyists have labeled him. Others say he's merely doing the dirty work of his increasingly hard-line conservative mentor, Senate President Jim Scott.
In fact, no one has come in for more criticism in Florida over Republican budget cuts. But perhaps because of his age and his privileged background, critics tend to miss something that his GOP supporters see in the lanky, slightly coltish young man: As the successful son of successful immigrants, they believe Diaz-Balart makes a considerable personal case for their theme of self-reliance.
"One big part of my family's tradition is that regardless of what the issue is, we don't expect others to do it for us," says Diaz-Balart. "And this country has always been known for that - self-reliance, ingenuity. But lately we've gotten away from that. We've got to be more self-reliant."
A remarkable family story
In fact, his family's story is a remarkable one. The often-repeated wisdom in South Florida is that the Diaz-Balarts are "the Cuban Kennedys," as Florida International University (FIU) professor Dario Moreno notes. "Except that they lack the great wealth," he says. "And the scandals."
Consider that Mario's older brother, Lincoln, is a second-term U.S. congressman from Miami. Another brother, Jose, is a reporter and anchor on WTVJ-Channel 6 in Miami. Still another brother, Rafael, is a well-known Miami banker and civic do-gooder. Their father, Rafael Lincoln Diaz-Balart, was a Cuban senator and congressman before Castro's takeover. He now co-anchors a highly rated afternoon radio show on Miami's WQBA-La Cubanisima. The brothers' grandfather, Rafael Jose Diaz-Balart (1900-1985) was a lawyer for United Fruit Co., as well as a Cuban congressman. Following the 1952 military coup by Fulgencio Batista, he became minister of transportation and communications.
"And of course their aunt was married to Castro," says Uva Clavijo, assistant director of FIU's Cuban Research Institute (CRI). As the story is told, Mario's father befriended Castro in the 1940s at the University of Havana, where both were students. They even became roommates for a time. The future dictator eventually married Diaz-Balart's sister Myrtha in 1948. Myrtha bore a son named Fidel, who is known as Fidelito. The couple divorced in 1953, as Castro became increasingly radicalized.
Understandably, the Diaz-Balarts don't like to discuss their infamous former in-law, except to wish fervently for his political demise. Myrtha now lives in Spain; Fidelito, who is Mario's first cousin, lives in Havana. For a time he headed Cuba's nuclear power program, before falling from favor.
The Diaz-Balarts fled Cuba in December 1958, just days before Castro's takeover. Mario, the youngest of the four brothers, was born in Fort Lauderdale in 1961, as the family bounced between South Florida, New York, Spain and Venezuela. Eventually the family settled in Miami and set about rebuilding their fortunes.
Rafael and Hilda prepared their sons from an early age for public affairs. "History and politics and religion - that's all we talked about over the dinner table," says Mario. "This," he says, waving his hands around in his legislative office, "is no different than growing up."
In large part, observers attribute the Diaz-Balarts' success in politics in Miami to their ability to conjure up memories of the best of the old Cuban political class - its culture and refinement, its passion for principle. "The family stands for a lot of traditional values," says FIU Professor Moreno. "Some of it is nostalgia."
Significantly, the family also managed to avoid the stains of corruption and brutality that marked the Batista regime. And even if many Cuban-Americans still harbor ill will toward Batistianos, that hasn't affected Mario and his brothers. "They're young and smart and handsome," explains Clavijo of the CRI. "So how can you blame them?"
As the youngest son, Mario clearly benefited the most from the family's burgeoning success. But his achievements have been at least partly due to his own ability to take advantage of opportunities, friends say. For that, credit his baby-brother brashness.
"When Mario believed in something, no matter how much my father or mother would try to convince him, he would not be convinced," says Lincoln. "And this was when he was like three. It was cute, and we'd laugh. But nevertheless we'd note it."
Says Jose: "Years ago I remember someone insulted Lincoln at a meeting. Lincoln wasn't there, but Mario was. Mario went right up to this guy and said, 'Lincoln is my brother, and I won't permit it.' And this was a huge, bulky guy. I think it was just the guy's surprise and shock that saved Mario from getting his butt kicked."
Bored and restless at the University of South Florida, Diaz-Balart quit and joined then-Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez as an administrative assistant. In 1988, at the age of only 27, Diaz-Balart tramped door-to-door to win a victory in a race for an open state House seat. Lincoln, seven years older than Mario, had won his own state House seat just two years earlier.
In the House, Mario's good-natured aggressiveness helped him play a significant role in one big fight: the 1992 redrawing of the Legislature's districts. Repeatedly during the debate, Diaz-Balart and another young Cuban-American member, Miguel "Mike" De Grandy, criticized Democratic districting plans for providing fewer Cuban-Americans seats than GOP plans.
Mario's intensity helps him
But instead of attacking the plans in a conventional way, the pair staged a mock TV quiz program called "The Mike and Mario Show," complete with annoying buzzer sounds. Many Anglo members - even Democrats - found the routine hilarious. It was also effective. The Legislature's plans eventually expanded the number of Hispanic House seats in Dade from seven to nine. Mario and his brother Lincoln, who had moved to the state Senate in 1989, also got new districts for themselves - a Senate seat for Mario and a U.S. congressional seat for Lincoln.
In the Senate, Mario's intensity helped him again, when incoming Senate President Scott chose him as Ways and Means chairman for 1995-96. Says Scott: "I saw Mario as someone who was bright, young and energetic and willing to take a fresh look at some of the things we've been doing around here."
As a senator from big, politically powerful Dade County, Diaz-Balart was a natural choice for a leadership position. However, Scott clearly views Diaz-Balart as more than a regional ally. For the Fort Lauderdale Republican, Diaz-Balart is a fellow true believer in the GOP's new budget-cutting agenda.
To middle-aged millionaire Scott, Diaz-Balart serves another valuable function: Insulating him from the political heat. After all, Diaz-Balart remains young enough to remind people that a new generation's financial future hangs in the budgetary balance. Despite the Diaz-Balart family's wealth and prestige, Mario also is still far enough down on the net-worth scale ($38,000 as of 1994) to remind people that his own financial future remains uncertain, too. He lives in a decidedly modest house in west Dade. When he comes to Tallahassee, he stays in a sparsely furnished room that he rents from Jim Murley, the recently named secretary of the Department of Community Affairs. Instead of fancy feasts, he likes milk shakes at Bennigan's.
Diaz-Balart's financial picture improved somewhat when he was hired last year as president of a marketing firm now known as Gordon Sloan Diaz-Balart. But he's far from wealthy. "My home is like the federal government," Diaz-Balart laughs about his own finances. (He jokingly told one interviewer this year that he was "not mature enough" to get married yet, although friends say he's just too busy.)
In fact, Diaz-Balart has done Scott's dirty work so successfully that there's some speculation he will be brought back for a second go-round as Ways and Means chairman in 1997-98, when Orlando construction executive Toni Jennings is likely to become Senate president. That would give Diaz-Balart a powerful platform from which to launch his own bid for the Senate presidency for 1999-2000. He would become the first Cuban-American to lead a Florida legislative chamber.
But being a Senate leader isn't the same as providing leadership. It's worth asking whether Scott, Jennings and Diaz-Balart are doing that. The question is: Are they producing creative change in the state's bloated budget? Or are they simply engaging in wholesale hacking?
So far, the results are mixed. On the one hand, they've taken bold steps to begin forcing schools to pare down spending on administrative bureaucrats. They've spurred healthy debate about privatization of services. They've taken many needed steps toward introducing more managed care into Medicaid and other public-paid health services. They've sharply curbed the growth of state government's work force.
On the other hand, Republicans also have cut into such vital programs as university research budgets, pre-kindergarten programs for disadvantaged children and welfare for pregnant women. They've voted to pare down state meat inspections and state school bus inspections. They've slashed mental health services, demanded co-payments from Medicaid recipients and neglected day-care services for many poor mothers who want to work. They've reduced remedial money for students who aren't being adequately educated in high schools.
It's difficult for some insiders to imagine that the state can endure many more years of such cuts. But when it comes to raising taxes, Diaz-Balart insists that voters have had enough. "Sure we could do it," he says. "Once."
His skepticism is understandable. In fact, for 12 years in a row, from 1982 to 1993, the state Legislature raised taxes and fees to cover expensive growth and expand services. By 1993, Florida TaxWatch says, Floridians' state and local tax burden had climbed to 25th among the states. Meanwhile, the Legislature's opportunity to enact real tax reform had all but slipped away.
By the early 1990s, even moderate Democrats like Chiles realized that popular anxiety over the budget was growing almost as rapidly as the budget itself (which swelled from $9.5 billion in 1981 to almost $40 billion this year). As the numbers suggest, however, government actually did little to reduce the budget's growth rate during Chiles' first term.
Now it has to. Diaz-Balart, for one, says he couldn't be happier.