For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, there's a real race on in the 18th Congressional District, which includes all of the Keys, Miami Beach, Homestead and many southern Miami suburbs.
Voters will choose between 19-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Annette Taddeo, a businesswoman.
Taddeo has never run for election before but has a lot of experience in the mainland business world. For Ros-Lehtinen, politics has been her business for 26 years, the first seven in the state Legislature and the rest in Congress.
Taddeo is in the national Democratic Party's Red to Blue Program, which provides financial and strategic support to candidates they think have a real shot at unseating a Republican. So this race is on the national radar.
The job pays $169,300 annually.
Taddeo, 41, was born in Colombia, where her father Anthony, a disabled veteran who served in Korea and World War II, operated a helicopter pilot training school and met her mother, Elizabeth. Taddeo was born with a cleft palette that would require 19 surgeries to fully reconstruct.
Ruth Lyman refers to herself as Taddeo's sister because Lyman's family hosted Taddeo her senior year of high school and throughout college. "I know Annette was bullied. It's hard to have a facial deformity," Lyman said. But, "She knows how to overcome bullying."
Taddeo overcame in a big way, graduating from the University of North Alabama studying commercial Spanish and business administration. She went on to found LaunguageSpeak, a multimillion-dollar business that provides translating, interpreting and tutoring services in more than 100 languages.
She lives in Pinecrest with her husband, Dr. Eric Goldstein, twin 17-year-old stepdaughters and another daughter who is almost 2.
She says the time is right for her to take on Ros-Lehtinen, the senior member of Florida's congressional delegation.
"I took a long time," Taddeo said, referring to her decision to run. "I needed in my heart to know this is what I want to do. Can I walk away from my business, my husband, my daughters? It's a big life-changing decision."
Taddeo sat down with the Keynoter and said she will work for economic policies that require accountability in addressing foreclosure rates and small-business needs while associating Ros-Lehtinen with the Bush administration's deregulatory economic policy.
"If we're going to punish the greedy Wall Street people, we need to fire Ileana, too. Fix the problems that, honestly, [Ros-Lehtinen] started. It [financial recovery] starts on Main Street but as a small-business owner, it is difficult to get a loan. Small-business owners are going to be the most effected, but in our community, they're the biggest employer."
Taddeo's environmental views tie into the economy. She says renewable energy would help the environment while creating American jobs, and help cut oil imports. On that, Ros-Lehtinen agrees.
"We need to look to the future and invest in renewable energy," Taddeo said. "Let's have an energy revolution. It's a great concern, which is even more reason for us to quit our dependence on foreign oil. I think we should invest in brand-new jobs that can't be sent overseas. I think we have the opportunity to bring these jobs to South Florida."
As for federal funding to help construct central sewage systems in the Keys, Taddeo said, "I've said that the secret for us getting the funding is to go through it as an environmental issue. Our country needs to protect the coral reef. We need to protect it." But, "It's always been looked at as something the Keys needs. It should also be protected because our tourism depends on it."
Olga Romeo who works for Taddeo at LanguageSpeak and grew up with Taddeo in Colombia.
”I always thought that she was going to do something big," Romeo said. "She has to get involved and needs to know what's going on. She's so passionate about politics."
Aside from her foray into national politics, Taddeo has been very involved in a variety of business, service and political organizations:
The 56-year-old Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana to Enrique Ros and Amanda Adato. After the family moved to South Florida, and received bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Florida International University and a doctorate from the University of Miami.
Ros-Lehtinen served in the state House from 1982 until 1986, when she jumped to the state Senate and married legislator Dexter Lehtinen, who went on to serve as U.S. attorney for South Florida. She has two daughters and two stepchildren.
With the passing of U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper in 1989, Ros-Lehtinen ran a successful bid for a spot in the U.S. House and has been serving ever since.
Ros-Lehtinen is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has chaired the Africa Subcommittee, the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee and the International Economic Policy and Trade subcommittee. She is co-chairwoman of the House National Marine Sanctuary Caucus.
The Ros-Lehtinen campaign is betting that a loyal constituency and a solid reputation for face-to-face service will see the incumbent through voter reservations caused by an unpopular president and the challenge posed by Taddeo.
Former Monroe County Commissioner Glenn Patton knows Ros-Lehtinen in both a professional and personal capacity. He says he appreciates Ros-Lehtinen's efforts to try to send federal dollars into various Keys projects.
"It's very difficult to get Washington's attention on local wastewater improvements," he said, but "she has really stepped up to the plate."
Ros-Lehtinen explained to the Keynoter her views on the economic challenges of Monroe County and how she can help: "There's a lack of federal funds, a lack of state funds and not enough of a tax base to be able to build upon. There's no way for young people to stay here and make a living. It's really tough. We need more federal dollars."
The congresswoman has directed more than $35 million in federal money to Monroe County in her tenure in Washington, including $11 million for sewer construction.
"I keep pushing and pushing and pushing my colleagues to send money down here," she said. "My job is to sell the Keys to my colleagues."
Ros-Lehtinen voted against the $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street the first time around but approved the second plan.
"What we need is transparency and accountability. It's [the economic bailout] a hefty price tag," she said. And she noted the impact on her district.
"It makes big-ticket items all that more difficult to get. It looks like paradise but paradise comes at a cost. I'm working hard so that I can thrive in this election cycle."
Former Key West City Commissioner Tom Oosterhoudt is a close friend of Ros-Lehtinen.
"She has been on the scene for any and every situation," he said. "She never hesitated to meet with them [community members] whether they were black, white, Hispanic, straight or gay. She reached out to everyone. She does it because she wants to. She could easily ignore the Keys but she doesn't."