A political novice but longtime community and civil rights activist, Diaz won strong support among fellow Cuban-Americans, many of whom remain bitter about how federal agents whisked Elián out of Miami in April 2000. "That had an enormous impact and still resonates," says Kendall Coffey, a lawyer who worked with Diaz on blocking Elián's return to Cuba. "It likely created a new mayor."
Diaz, who was with 6-year-old Elian the morning of the raid, was the same age when he and his mother, Elisa, now 70, left Cuba in 1961. (His father, Manuel, a onetime political prisoner in Cuba, fled to Miami in 1962.) He first lived in a two-room apartment with seven relatives and in 1967 hit the home run that won a Little League World Series for Miami's Cuba Libre team.
A father of four who lives with his third wife, Robin, 34, and their daughter Elisa, 6, Diaz is realizing the dream he'd once had for Elián.
"On election night, we celebrated two blocks from the first place I lived with my mom," he says. "Here I am, 40 years later, as mayor. God bless America."