Three Scenes from the Political Stage

Election night with Steve Clark, Miriam Alonso, and Raul Martinez

Within half an hour, the sad spectacle was over. Alonso disappeared into her white Cadillac with her bodyguard and her loyal husband, Leonel. The reporters and cameramen were gone a few minutes later, leaving only a few diehards to pick up the meager decorations. Captain Polo was one of the last to leave, and he looked dejected. The spotlight he worked so hard to grab had disappeared so quickly.

-- By Steven Almond and Stan Yarbro
If you weren't right there, jammed in with the off-duty police officers, private security guards, and cheering loved ones and acolytes, you strained for a momentary glimpse of Raul Martinez making his way to the platform outside his campaign headquarters. In the dark, with the pure-white television lights washing out colors and giving the scene a stark, disjointed, old-movie feel, Martinez's advance to the stage acquired an epic and spectacular quality. "He walks through the crowd like Moses," offered an admiring friend and campaign worker. Martinez's neatly groomed head rose above the crowd, dipping, turning, glistening with perspiration in the overheated Hialeah night.

Perhaps in another context, in a different city, Martinez would be lashing out at his enemies, bitterly claiming vindication after three and a half years of living with the disgrace of his indictment and conviction for public corruption. But Hialeah is a place apart, where not all rules and precedents necessarily apply. He spoke little about his legal problems, though he alluded frequently to the batalla dificil he and his family fought to preserve, or restore, his political honor.

He didn't publicly promise vengeance on his enemies, but before the TV cameras, Martinez embraced Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bola*os, a gesture that ensured the city's volatile political factions would remain at war. Bola*os, whom Martinez had appointed before his suspension, has been the target of several ouster attempts by Martinez's enemies.

And who knows what Martinez said privately to other political figures who showed up to congratulate him, among them State Senator Roberto Casas and Hialeah City Council members Alex Morales and Carmen Caldwell. The headquarters itself was barred to everyone but family and loyal workers most of the night. In public, moving amid a hugging and kissing onslaught, Martinez beamed; he spoke of el carino, el calor, the affection and the warmth of the people -- "my people," he repeated -- and he thanked his people, over and over, in Spanish: "Mil, pero mil gracias." He addressed them almost solely in Spanish, but doing so lacked the defiance and significance of Miriam Alonso's aggressive ethnic appeal across town in Miami. Here in the city of immigrants, where virtually the entire population is Hispanic, you don't make a point of speaking Spanish; you just speak it.

For hours before Martinez's arrival, which came only after his mayoral victory seemed assured, the parking lot of the former video store on West 49th Street had been packed. Some people brought their own lawn chairs; many carried big campaign signs that read, "Raul: Ahora mas que nunca" (now more than ever), and they stood on the sidewalk or in the median, waving their placards to the sounds of whistles and sirens and nonstop honking horns from passing cars and trucks.

Just down the street was the headquarters of Martinez's opponent, Nilo Juri. There, too, the faithful gathered outside with signs and whistles. But not as many. And their enthusiasm didn't match the all-out passion at Martinez headquarters. La Orquesta Calle H, the leader of which is an old friend of the mayor, played sones and rumbas. Two paunchy middle-age women in polyester pants and T-shirts, with identical silver coiffures and cigarettes between their teeth, danced while holding aloft their signs. A group of teenagers wearing campaign shirts joined in and moved to the music. An old woman twirled in circles. A couple gyrated atop an oddly shaped wooden spool that must have been dragged from a factory or construction site. Reminders were everywhere of Hialeah's blue-collar roots that go back even to the provincial origins of its majority Cuban population.

The pungent aroma of paella wafted from two giant cauldrons, each about eight feet wide. Watermelon, vegetables, sandwiches, and cakes were also set out. A neighboring tent sheltered several overwhelmed bartenders. Among the happy citizens overwhelming those bartenders was Juan Chavez, a dental laboratory worker who is missing a couple of front teeth. "When Raul was mayor, the city was happy," shouted Chavez above the blare of the band. "He is a good administrative man."

Indeed, nearly everyone talked about how good things were when Martinez was in charge, and how terrible they have been since then. "I want to go back to four years ago," Martinez said from the stage. "I want this city to return to what it was before." Before his brilliant career was hijacked by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Before Hialeah sailed into its current financial straits. "He's the man people want," advised Luis Sanchez, a grizzled, eloquent heavy-equipment salesman who had been enjoying the free bar. "We have a man convicted of racketeering, but we still vote for him. He's a crook, but we don't care. We want him."

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