For Janelle Perez, a seat in the Florida state senate is not a matter of if, but when. “I am openly gay,” she told HollywoodLife in an interview ahead of the mid-term elections. “So When I win, I’ll be the first LGBTQ parent in our Florida legislature. I’ll be the first LGBTQ Latina in the state senate, and the first LGBTQ woman in the state senate. And it’s a huge responsibility, but representation matters.”
Nobody understands that better than Janelle, who speaks with authority on every topic we discuss. The daughter of Cuban exiles who became successful business owners after leaving Castro’s dictatorship, she says she’s built her political platform on concern for the people of Miami. She’s a business owner herself in Miami Dade, acting as her company’s Network Development Specialist — but she adds that she’s taken “a big step away from the job” in order to focus on running full time.
Part of her campaign, which is endorsed by Run For Something, emphasizes the importance of affordable, high-quality healthcare for all Floridians. “My family and I own a Medicare HMO company,” she said. “We try to offer better services and higher quality benefits to the community” with a “personal touch,” she added.
Perez is a mother of two young daughters (five years old and five months old) with her wife, Monica, and a cancer survivor. At 28, Janelle was diagnosed with Stage IV Follicular Lymphoma, an aggressive, incurable cancer. She was born and raised in Miami and is a graduate of Florida International University. She sought her Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. After winning the Democratic party nomination in her primary, she says nothing is going to stand in her way of taking Florida State Senate District 38 on November 8. “In this race, I am the only parent, I am the only business owner, I am the only homeowner,” she told HL.
And why is that important to her potential voters? “In Florida we are currently going through a housing and affordability crisis,” she explained. “Being a homeowner in this race means, I know the struggles of a lot of folks right now. Our homeowner’s insurance has risen significantly, and companies are leaving the state in droves. My opponent doesn’t know what that’s like, having to juggle the responsibilities of homeownership and supporting a family.”
Her Republican opponent is first time candidate Alexis Calatayud. According to Janelle, Calatuyud is also about to get a “blank check” from Republicans for her campaign, while self-starter Perez is working hard to hit fundraising goals for herself before primaries. “In Florida, we have seen the Governor and the GOP legislature use education and our kids to wage culture wars,” she added.
“My opponent is running on a platform of education and strengthening parental rights, yet has no idea what it’s like to drop off their child in school. She has also worked at the Department of Education during a time that our teacher shortage gap widened to an all-out crisis. The agenda that she has supported has underpaid our teachers, made their work harder, taken funding away from public education, and forced teachers out of the state or into retirement.”
Basically, concluded Perez, “they want her there because she’s going be another vote for their agenda,” she said of the candidate, who describes herself as a “lifelong Republican” on her official campaign site. The Florida International University grad also interned for Senator Marco Rubio.
When asked what Alexis stands for, Janelle said she thinks, “that’s the point. I would love to know where she stands on the position of the Governor and GOP legislature on their promises to pass open carry laws in Florida and restrict a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “Unfortunately, she has not taken a public stance on anything, and I believe the voters deserve to know all of her positions.”
The two are now locked in a battle over district 38, which covers Key Biscayne, Coconut Grove, Brickell, South Miami, Pinecrest, Coral Gables, Kendall, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay, South Dade, West Perrine, Goulds, Richmond Heights and Homestead.
“I grew up in a conservative family,” Perez told HollywoodLife. “A lot of the Cuban exiles in my community tend to lean Republican. So, the fact that a Cuban American woman who is openly gay, and a Democrat, is running, that is significant.”
In a way, that exposure to conservativism has given her the perspective she needs to hone in on important economic issues. “People are loving the fact that I am new to politics, that I come from the business community,” she said. “I am an extremely pro-business democrat. I employ over 200 people here in Miami Dade county. I have experience creating jobs, actual jobs, and providing benefits to my employees.”
But since she’s running as a Democrat, she’s aware of how her opponent will try to paint her. “They’re going to call me an extremely progressive liberal, and that isn’t necessarily true,” she said of Republicans, noting that she calls herself a “moderate Democrat” and believes that supporting small businesses is the way to revive the economy. Janelle also notes that the Florida legislature has been Republican for 28 years, which reminds her of the “one-party” system many Cubans have fled. “It’s time for some change!” she exclaimed.
Her down-to-earth approach is all about what matters to the voters that she’s meeting. The biggest reason she’s running is to provide access to “more healthcare for Floridians,” she told HL. “People are connecting to that.” On a much bigger scale, though, this powerhouse candidate has some sobering words for people inside and outside Florida, especially those alarmed by the recent overturning of Roe V. Wade.
“When people in Hollywood, and New York, and in California are looking at the things that Ron DeSantis is doing in Florida, what they need to understand is that Florida is Ron DeSantis’s guinea pig,” she said. “He is going to run for president in 2024. So if you don’t like what’s happening in Florida, and you don’t want this rhetoric to become the national conversation in 2024, then you need to help us stop it, now. Because it’s going to come after you, and the rest of the country. And the way that you do that, is by investing in actually viable candidates, like my race.”
For now, Janelle sees that her message is working — she’s certain that she’s picking up both Democrat and Republican voters. “I’m really pulling people together and uniting my community, big time” she said. But without more support, to the tune of $3 million for her race, she says there’s only so much she can do to get the word out. Donors are critical.
“There’s nothing that’s going to happen to me on this campaign trail that’s worse than cancer, so bring it,” she said.