Arrested...Convicted...Elected?

Raul Martinez is facing ten years in prison for public corruption. Hialeah voters want him to be their mayor anyway. What a town!

"People just don't think he was guilty," says state Sen. Roberto Casas, a Hialeah Republican who served as Martinez's campaign treasurer in 1989. "He is getting more support than previously. He did a good job as mayor. I have no doubt he'll be re-elected."

Adds Hialeah Councilman Alex Morales: "He has a personal charisma and a large group of loyalists who are almost fanatical in their love for him."

Even many of Martinez's rivals acknowledge his popular appeal. Julio Martinez, who is not related and who likely will get thumped next Tuesday, explains it this way: "The Cuban people are accustomed to dictators. Raul is tall; he even looks like [former Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista. He has that macho image, and people like to have a boss no matter how bad he is.

"He should be in jail. If he didn't have money, he would be right now," Juri adds, referring to the fact that Martinez remains free on bond.

Juri, a former state representative who narrowly lost the mayor's race to Martinez in 1989, says this: "In Cuba and other Central American nations, it was tolerated for a politician to make money while in office, without working. If the people of Hialeah knew the things Raul Martinez has whispered in my ears over the past few years, he would not get elected. It is filthy. Right now he is a crook, a criminal, a convicted felon. How can you send the fox to take care of the chickens? If it happens, it is very sad for the city. We will be the laughingstock."

Born in Cuba in 1949, Martinez came to Miami with his family in 1960, worked after school at a gas station, with his father founded a weekly newspaper, El Sol de Hialeah, took a degree in criminal justice from Florida International University in 1977, and that same year was elected to the city council of Florida's fifth-largest city.

Four years later he became the predominantly Hispanic city's first Hispanic mayor. Although Martinez was a self-styled Hubert Humphrey Democrat caught in the middle of the Reagan years, talk about the personable mayor's likely assent to national politics began almost immediately. And he didn't mind. "I really would have liked to have been the first Cuban-born congressman," he says. "Then, when the Democrats took the White House, maybe a post as ambassador somewhere. I could never be President [because he was not born in the U.S.], but I could have headed a department in the federal government, then returned to Florida for a statewide job. But A"

But it didn't happen.
Instead of being in Washington today as part of the Clinton Administration, Martinez is fighting for some redemption, both in the federal court of appeals and with the voters.

What happens if you lose the election?
If I lose the election, I will not feel rejected. I think the support I've gotten so far, with all the problems I've had, whatever votes I get I'm going to be very happy with. It would not be a rejection of Raul Martinez.

But how else to explain it?
I would explain it by saying that I still have a pending case, that people might have had certain concerns over that case, and I have to accept that. If there was no pending case, and the people reject you, then that's the time you have to say, "Okay, goodbye, I'm out of politics." But you've seen a lot of comebacks; a lot of people have run for public office, lost, and then come back.

But you've said you don't hear about many people afraid to support you.
I'm sure it's there, but people just don't tell you. You imagine that it's there. I'd be a fool to think that would not be out there. It's human nature. I can't say to you, "Everybody out there loves me." You want it that way, but it ain't gonna happen.

So despite what the polls are saying, are you preparing yourself to be upset November 2?

If the will of the people is expressed with a positive vote, I'll be very happy. But if it's negative, I'm not going to be as happy. But you know what? I'm going to go back to doing what I'm doing, and feel that I tried, gave it my best shot, and just didn't win.

And what becomes of you then?
I don't know what's going to happen. I've never planned my political life. But I could be a TV or radio commentator. I would like to do something on the radio, community politics. I've toyed with the idea of a half-hour show, bring in guests, burning issues, how can we do it better.

But you suspect you won't have to deal with it just yet?
You never know. I hope the people will get up on Tuesday morning and say, "We'd like to bring him back."

Martinez says he thinks the criminal case against him was in part a personal vendetta directed by then acting U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen. When long-time U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper died in 1989, Martinez was, as he puts it, "riding high." He had been elected unopposed to a second term in 1985, a year later he merited a mention in Esquire magazine as someone to watch, and in 1987 and 1988 he was elected president of the Dade League of Cities and then the Florida League of Cities. Pepper's seat beckoned.

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