Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Part 2: Miriam Alonso knows how to put votes together, but she can't seem to separate dirty tricks from politics

Jorge marches outside, past the ripped porch screens and rusted toys, to a musty storage shed. From beneath a sack of fertilizer he pulls out a stack of periodiquitos, the weekly tabloids that both reflect and help fuel the rumor mill in Little Havana. "We were told to steal these every Friday," he says. Water-rotted, a few more than two years old, each paper contains some slight against the Alonsos.

Having collected hundreds of dollars from friends for Alonso's 1989 city commission campaign, Jorge says he grew disillusioned after her election: "I didn't want to do anything illegal any more." He rips in half a faded Miriam Alonso placard. "No name," he insists again. "Please remember."

Johnny Viso wants his name used. "We all do," he says, gesturing to the anxious faces gathered around his Westchester kitchen table. "We want to say to the people of Miami that we're sorry. We didn't know who Miriam was --" Before he can finish, the room erupts into angry discourse. For the next two hours six former Miriamistas describe their lives inside the Alonso camp. They, too, tell of slanderous radio scripts, of stolen newspapers, and of threats used to extort help from city employees or their families.

"Miriam helped me get a job with the city, but then she expects me to be like a slave," complains Rafael Tellez, a carpenter. "Her office used to pull me off work to call radio talk shows and to move things between her apartments. I did it so long as I was paid by the city. But then she wanted me to lose work days so I could help Alfredo Bared in his [1991] race against Victor De Yurre. I refused. Then I guess she got worried, because she tried to convince me that I'd never been paid by the city to work for her. She tried blaming it on her staff. She even tried to accuse me of stealing. I said, 'Go ahead. Bring the police. You're the one going to jail.'"

Eugenio Ramirez, a butcher, helped pull down signs of Alonso opponents and protested at city hall. "They make you feel so involved you don't ever think if what you're doing is wrong. But they put so much pressure that my wife got sick," he says. His wife, sitting beside him, implores him to be quiet. "She's still nervous," Ramirez says.

"My wife was threatened, too," adds Pepe Garcia, a truck driver, "that they would fire her from her city job unless she agreed to give her car to other volunteers so they could steal newspapers."

Olga Perez pledged her support to Alonso back in 1984 because she admired Alonso's father, prominent Cuban politician Guillermo Ara. "But gradually my faith disappeared," says Perez, a state worker specializing in public assistance to the poor. "I don't think they care about the old and needy. I remember going to a lunch program for the elderly, and these viejitos came to greet Leonel. He gave them a big hug. But when he walked away, I heard him say, 'Oh, they're so disgusting.'"

To the public, Leonel Alonso is known as the man who used to applaud embarrassingly loudly at Miriam's public appearances. But ex-volunteers portray him as a notorious hothead who lives vicariously through his wife and guards her honor with a vengeance. "One time Angel Maldonado, the editor of El Expreso, printed that Miriam was having an affair," recalls Garcia, the truck driver. "Leonel got so furious he told me to descojonarlo. To fuck him up. He said they had lawyers if anything bad happened." Another volunteer, who requested anonymity, claims Leonel made the same request of him.

"He does most of the dirty work because Miriam wants to shield herself," recalls Johnny Viso, a campaign coordinator in Alonso's 1989 race for city commission. "But she knew what was going on. It's like they say, Leonel es Miriam y Miriam es Leonel."

Viso says working with the Alonsos dragged him into a world of paranoia and plotting, where grudges took on a foreboding cast. Death threats are certainly nothing new to the Alonsos. Several years ago they publicly accused Victor De Yurre, Sr., the city commissioner's father, of plotting to kill them. Last April Metro-Dade police arrested Javier Soto for allegedly soliciting a hit man to kill Miriam, who had pushed for greater city control over Soto's Latin Stars program, which honors prominent Latin entertainers with sidewalk stars on Calle Ocho. (Prosecutors dropped the charges, citing lack of evidence. Soto, still shaken by the incident, maintains he was set up by somebody.)

"At the beginning, when they would shout, we thought they were just nervous," Viso recalls. "But pretty soon we realized that's how they are all the time." The 911 call is a good example, he says. This past February burglars broke into the home of the Alonsos' daughter. As they were leaving the residence, they bumped into a babysitter returning home with Alonso's three grandchildren and quickly fled.

Upon learning of the burglary, Miriam called 911 emergency operators three times. Though the situation was no longer an emergency, she demanded that a dispatcher send police in less than four minutes. "This is Commissioner Miriam Alonso," she announced. "They tried to steal my grandchildren, and I need the policemen right now!" Within minutes half a dozen squad cars were at the scene, along with Police Chief Calvin Ross and City Manager Odio. Though the city code prohibits commissioners from giving orders to municipal employees, no investigation was undertaken. The Florida Commission on Ethics, however, announced last week that it found "probable cause" to believe that Alonso had violated ethics regulations. A full investigation will now begin. If the commission determines Alonso is guilty, she could be reprimanded or removed from office.

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