The moderate Republican may get his ass kicked in Tuesday's primary. But don't count him out completely.
Gavriel Soriano has a problem that Florida candidates for Congress typically don’t have. Sure, he’s wrangling volunteers, which, as anyone who’s worked on a campaign knows, is the political equivalent of herding cats. He’s twenty grand in the hole on a self-funded campaign. And he’s struggling to get his message heard above the din of the Daniel Webster and Laura Loomer campaigns as they duke it out for the nomination in the 11th Congressional District in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
But at this very minute, what Soriano really needs is someone to shear his sheep.
“It’s so difficult to get someone. And we have no one! I was thinking I could just get anybody, but no.” Sheep shearing, Soriano says, is a word-of-mouth business. “They don’t market because they wouldn’t have enough time for all the business they have,” he explains. Soriano has Jacob’s sheep, which are spotted and known for growing two sets of horns, so he asked another farmer with Jacob’s sheep for a recommendation. Absolutely, the shearer told Soriano. He could squeeze in his three sheep for shearing … about a year from now.
“He was going to Germany, then Ireland and all these other places,” Soriano says laughing. “So I had to learn to do it myself.”
Soriano tells me this on a recent sweltering Saturday morning as we’re hanging out in his
his booth at the Mount Dora Farmers Market. At 27, he looks every bit the hipster farmer — unshaven, in cuffed jeans, black lace-up boots with a collared polo, a leather fanny pack for cash clipped ‘round his waist. On his right hand is a silver ring with a Star of David. When he laughs, which he does a lot, politics being a funny business, you can see his braces.
This morning Soriano is selling black tea kombucha from his family’s L’Chaim Brewery. The brewery is part of Heph’zibah & Beulah Farms in Bushnell that Soriano runs with his sisters Ivette and Naschaly and their mother Asuncion. They call themselves “renegade farmers,” for their sustainable farming methods for growing crops and raising chickens, goats, cows and those must-be-sheared sheep.
It was this can-do, seize the moment attitude that propelled Soriano, who has a deep love of history and law and politics but no political experience, into the congressional primary against popular incumbent Webster and alt-right challenger Loomer.
“Being a farmer, a lot of times opportunity comes and you’ve got to just take it because it may not ever come again,” he says. “This moment that we’re in right now, it seems like the scariest moment in terms of our political atmosphere and the divisions we have. But I think it’s the best moment. These unprecedented times lit a spark in me and I feel like I can take what I’ve learned and bring it to my community.”
The other renegade farmers have been drafted to help. Sister Ivette is the campaign manager while Naschaly recruits volunteers and “jumps in wherever I’m needed.”
“He’s been wanting to do this for a long time and he’s very passionate,” Naschaly says, when she arrives at the booth later in the morning. “He’s always wanted to do something to make the world a better place and this is his way of showing that, his forum.
Soriano, both Puerto Rican and Jewish, is not your typical post-Jan. 6 insurrection Republican. In campaign videos on his site, he addresses voters as “patriots” and tells them to “be of good faith.” He’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment — indeed he once took a bullet, still lodged in his leg, thwarting a thief trying to steal one of his goats. “Farming is dangerous; I don’t recommend it,” he laughs telling me the story.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between Soriano’s website candidate persona, who is crafted to appeal to conservative voters, and Soriano in person, who is far more nuanced and frankly a lot goofier, more fun and relaxed than the clean-shaven, buttoned-up image the site projects.
Soriano never mentions Donald Trump. He’s not stoking the Big Lie of a stolen election. He holds no truck with the “anti-woke” compulsion driving Republicans in Florida and across the country to write legislation whitewashing American history curricula and banning books. He believes market forces, not the government, should regulate “Big Tech.” As a devout Jew, he is steadfastly pro-choice. And as a sustainable farmer, who utilizes hügelkultur to save water and permaculture to farm without stripping the soil of nutrients or relying on fertilizer, he is a careful caretaker of the environment. L’Chaim Brewery, he tells people as they stop at the booth, recycles the liter kombucha bottles. He serves samples at the market in metal cups to reduce waste.
Soriano is so earthy-crunchy, you could throw a flannel shirt on him, and he’d blend right in in Vermont. In fact, when he first registered to vote, Soriano chose the Justice Party, whose platform includes campaign finance and immigration reform, support for marriage equality, single-payer healthcare and repealing the Patriot Act. The party fielded Rocky Anderson as a presidential candidate in 2012 and endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016.
“It’s peculiar,” he admits. “I’ve flirted with both sides. Philosophically, I understand both sides.” Still, beneath the hipster farmer garb, says Soriano, beats the heart of a small government conservative. “The basic ideal of Republicanism should be to keep government small, and that’s my goal.” Government waste and redundancy frustrate him, and he wants more issues put on ballots for voters to decide. “It comes down to not allowing the government to dictate what we’re doing in our lives so we can live freely the way we feel whether we’re Jews or non-Jews or whatever.”
I point out that the current iteration of the GOP seems quite interested in dictating voting access, abortion access, healthcare, gender-affirming treatment for trans children, school curricula, school libraries and reading lists, marriage and intimate relations between consenting adults.
“Whatever the Republican party may or may not be, my job is to bring it to its former ideals or to what I believe the Republican Party should be — limited government, lean government.”
He rarely talks about his opponents on the campaign trail, preferring to keep the focus on his United States Strong plan which emphasizes “involved citizenry, informed representatives and Constitutional governance.” He says, “I’m not here to talk about anything other than what I’m going to do for the people of my district. That’s what I pay attention to. I’m not here to talk about anything else.”
Still, he hasn’t been shy about calling out what he’s seen as questionable practices, such as when one of Loomer’s own campaign volunteers — Robert Rivernider, Jr., who served time for wire fraud for participating in two Ponzi schemes that bilked investors of more than $22 million — moderated a debate between Loomer and Soriano (Webster was not present). Soriano also exposed Jennifer and Joe McMahon, GOP donors who attempted to “bribe” him into withdrawing from the primary and endorsing Webster with the promise of a campaign position in two years when Jennifer McMahon said her husband plans to run for Webster’s seat.
“I’m not going to say Look how bad they are, so vote for me because I’m not that bad. I have to convince you by telling you my policies, my stances. If I’ve done good job, if i’ve created a good product as a businessman, then you will buy it and you will continue buying it and you will invest in it,” Soriano says as we shelter in the shade, watching the steady stream of dogs and baby strollers and dogs in baby strollers go by.
It would take a Maccabean miracle for Soriano to end up the Republican nominee for Congress on Tuesday night. But there’s always another election. And until then there are crops to grow, goats to tend, sheep to shear and kombucha to sell.
“Are you the guy that makes this stuff?” asks a gent who stops to purchase a bottle. “First time I’ve seen you here.”
“I’m not always here. My sister usually does this,” Soriano laughs. “But I am the Oz behind the curtain.”