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Raul Martinez's office in exile is about three blocks from Hialeah City Hall, on the ground floor of a pink-hued building on East First Avenue. He's got a glass-topped desk here, and a leather couch. The scattershot decor includes maps of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, a Haitian painting propped up on a chair, and an array of fancy whiskey bottles, cardboard displays, and promotional materials related to his current position as general manager of sixteen South Florida Checkers liquor stores. Although Martinez has been working out of this office for more than two and a half years, the look of the place is temporary, and to the occupant, so is the feel. After next week's mayoral election, Martinez plans on moving three blocks to the north.
The man who many believe once had the inside track on becoming the first Cuban-born member of the U.S. Congress was suspended as mayor of Hialeah in April 1990, after he was indicted on federal charges that he extorted nearly one million dollars in cash and property from developers in exchange for zoning approvals that benefited their projects. When he was convicted on six of those eight charges in March 1991, many wrote "Finis" to what appeared to be a classic American success story.
But Martinez says it's not the end. A week away from the election, mayoral candidate Raul Martinez is running as a convicted felon, facing ten years in prison, the nominal incumbent who has been prohibited from having anything to do with Hialeah's official business for the past three and a half years.
Nonetheless, he is expected to win.
How is that possible? "Because," answers Martinez, "people are saying, 'This guy was framed.' No one has ever doubted my management abilities. People might say, 'Maybe he did something outside of government. But he never neglected the city.'"
At age 44 Raul Martinez is a big guy, six foot, three inches, 250 pounds. But he's out of shape, ballooning around the middle, and as he drinks a mid-afternoon cup of cafe cubano from behind his desk, his handsomeness takes on a soft, overfed look. He's a Latino Elvis Presley. As cutthroat and nasty as Hialeah politics can be, Martinez is no brawler. He doesn't throw punches, or look like he could take one. But he does go toe-to-toe verbally, in Spanish or English, with opponents who accuse him of being a sloppy manager, or as a relatively rare Cuban-American Democrat, soft on communism, or who call him a crook who should hide in shame and stay in the liquor business.
After a recent run-in with his chief opponent, Nilo Juri, at radio station WQBA, Juri said Martinez was crazy and accused the suspended mayor of spitting in his face. During an on-air debate, Juri says, Martinez supporters standing in the studio flashed him the finger, and one man pulled back his jacket to reveal a pistol stuck in his waistband. "These were thugs, and this is exactly what he has been convicted of: extorting people," Juri charges.
"It never happened," scoffs Martinez, suggesting with this dismissal that if he really had launched any saliva in Juri's direction, he would have drowned the man.
"Yes, we did have a lot of words," Martinez says. "But if the spitting had happened, why didn't he take the handkerchief and clean his face, or why didn't he punch me? He called the Herald. He wanted to be the victim."
During a forum last week at Miami-Dade Community College, another of his four opponents, acting Mayor Julio Martinez, in a reference to Raul's past, told the audience, "I can't tell my kids not to steal if I'm a thief." Raul Martinez shook his head and charged that his successor was bankrupting the city with poor management and a lack of leadership.
As abashed as he was by his conviction ("I was a household word in Dade County," he says, "I hurt, I've cried"), Martinez prides himself on maintaining a public presence while in exile from office. He makes the rounds of Hialeah restaurants and coffee shops; he shops at Westland Mall. People still call him "Mayor" and give generously to his campaign fund, which tops $140,000. Attorneys' fees from both his trial and his appeal have totaled one million dollars, Martinez says, and constituents, including many developers, have gladly donated half of that.
Most evenings his campaign headquarters in a one-time video store is crowded with volunteers. In fact, the campaign received so many requests for yard signs that Martinez says he cut it off at 1100. The results of an independent poll of 400 voters released this past week show Martinez beating his challengers handily. Why? Because 39 percent of those questioned don't believe he's guilty, and an even higher percentage don't seem to care anyway. In response to the statement, "As a convicted felon, Raul Martinez is unqualified to be mayor," 43 percent disagreed. (Martinez has survived two recent efforts to have him thrown off the ballot. But this Thursday, October 28, an appeals court will convene an emergency hearing to resolve the matter.)
In 1989, running for re-election while under federal investigation, he still emerged victorious. This year, in a projected runoff with Nilo Juri, the Rob Schroth poll for the Herald and WLTV (Channel 23) found Martinez would get 46 percent to Juri's 38 percent, with 11 percent undecided.