It's My Party and I'll Squash You If I Want To

Like an eighteen-wheeler on a bike path, Dade Commissioner Bruce Kaplan subtly makes his mark on local GOP politics

On the highway of Dade County Republican politics, 32-year-old Emiliano Antunez is something of a go-cart -- a relatively sturdy vehicle capable of puttering from one place to another. Trouble is, he keeps getting squeezed off the road by a Mack truck named Bruce Kaplan.

Last year Antunez, a lifelong member of the Grand Old Party, ran an improbable race for county commissioner against Kaplan, Joe Gersten, Conchy Bretos, and a host of other hopefuls. Out of nearly 13,000 ballots cast in the primary, Antunez received 140 votes, enough to place him eleventh in the field of thirteen. Kaplan went on to defeat Bretos in the general election, though he drew harsh criticism for the smear tactics he employed. (New Times readers might also recall Kaplan from "Sore Winner," a November 24, 1993, story that explored various allegations that the newly elected commissioner was exacting political revenge against his opponents.)

Antunez, at any rate, took his loss good-naturedly and proceeded to set his political sights a little bit more realistically. Appointed by Kaplan to the county's Housing and Finance Authority, which oversees financing issues for Dade's low-income housing program, Antunez also began volunteering more of his time to the local Republican Party. Eventually he was named an alternate committeeman in Republican Committee District 19. Where he eventually ran smack into...Bruce Kaplan.

Republicans divide Dade into 40 committee districts, each of which encompasses eight or nine election precincts. Each district may have up to four committeemen, with slots specifically reserved for two men and two women. Residents of their particular district, committeemen act as neighborhood-level party organizers, enlisting volunteers to act as election-day poll watchers, going door-to-door to get out the vote, and coordinating events. On a countywide basis, committeemen also meet regularly to set local party policy and to help shape the state GOP platform.

Committeemen, in other words, aren't in it for the glamour. In fact, out of 160 Dade slots, more than one-fourth are empty. Competition for a particular post is rare; more often the need arises for party loyalists to recruit someone willing to fill the unpaid position.

So it came to pass that Antonio Cartas, a longtime committeeman for his Miami Beach neighborhood, had enlisted his friend Emiliano Antunez as an alternate committeeman in District 19, which extends from South Pointe north to about 26th Street in Miami Beach. In his eighties, Cartas knew he'd be stepping aside soon, and he was grateful to have found someone so eager to take over. Conveniently, in the role of alternate Antunez was able to take advantage of hands-on experience to prepare for the job. Early last month Antonio Cartas died. Within a week his good friend submitted a formal application for the job.

But he wasn't alone. Bruce Kaplan, who happens to live in the same neighborhood, filed too. As a result, today, August 25, Dade's incumbent GOP committeemen are slated to vote to decide who will assume the vacant post. Mary Ellen Miller, the county's GOP chairman, says this is the first such election she can remember.

The unprecedented situation raises an obvious question, one that is heatedly making the rounds in local Republican circles: Why in the world would a Dade County commissioner want to serve as a committeeman, much less compete against someone for a spot? Equally puzzling is the intrigue that has developed during the course of the mini-race.

Mary Ellen Miller says that when the issue first arose, Kaplan assured her there would be no contest at all -- Antunez would simply withdraw from the race. "'He's a friend of mine, he won't be running,'" she recalls Kaplan saying.

Antunez's recollection of events jibes with Miller's account, but it is far more detailed.

On August 11, says the ponytailed Antunez, who operates a finance company called Morkash Financial Services in Hialeah, Kaplan telephoned and asked if he could come by. Sure, Antunez replied. He was somewhat surprised when Kaplan arrived with two aides. After reminding Antunez of the Housing and Finance Authority appointment, Kaplan suggested that the less-experienced politician step aside for the good of the party. Antunez says he politely said no, whereupon Kaplan and his entourage departed.

Several hours later Antunez got another call from Kaplan, this one a dinner invitation for that same evening. Antunez begged off and hung up, only to receive several calls from friends urging him to reconsider the invitation. Ultimately, Antunez recounts, he relented and went to Kaplan's house at about ten o'clock.

Antunez says the two men talked for nearly two hours, with Kaplan again urging him to step aside. "He offered me a seat on the zoning appeals board if I dropped out of the race," Antunez asserts. "He said, 'How does a seat on the zoning board sound?' To be honest, I thought about it. I realized it would be a lot of trouble for me to go through with [the race]." Kaplan, Antunez says, told him that Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, would resign from the county's zoning appeals board to make room for him.

When he left the commissioner that night, Antunez said he'd give Kaplan his answer in the morning. Then, he recalls, his conscience got the better of him. "Selling out for anything would be wrong," he declares. "I'm not for sale and I don't want to give anyone the idea I'm controlled by anyone."

Antunez says he called Rodriguez-Chomat the next morning and announced that he had no intention of accepting a position on the zoning appeals board, no matter what Bruce Kaplan might have said, and that Rodriguez-Chomat should tell Kaplan the committeeman's race was still on.

Reached by telephone in La Paz, Bolivia, Kaplan spoke highly of Antunez. "It's a shame that two friends are running against each other," Kaplan observes. "[Antunez is] somebody we've tried to propel politically. I hope that we can bring Emiliano further along in the party." The commissioner acknowledges that he met twice with Antunez on August 11, and says he did attempt to convince his would-be opponent to step down for the good of the GOP. Kaplan, however, vehemently denies offering any sort of deal in exchange for cooperation. "That's bullshit," he says. "Not only is that bullshit, that's illegal."

Rodriguez-Chomat confirms that he received an August 12 phone call from Antunez but says he doesn't clearly recall what was discussed. "Emiliano seemed to be upset," Rodriguez-Chomat remembers. "Not upset with me, but just in general. He talked to me about some things, but nothing specific." Kaplan, he adds, has neither asked him to resign nor raised the possibility of Antunez replacing him on the zoning appeals board: "Bruce has not said a word to me about that."

In the end Kaplan and Antunez may be the only two people who know precisely what took place on the night of August 11. But Friday's election will yield an undisputable -- and very public -- certainty: One of the two candidates will emerge as a Republican Party committeeman.

Why might Kaplan be interested in a low-level GOP post? One of the party's rules might provide a hint: In order to attain a higher position within the local party organization -- such as the county chairmanship, for instance -- one must first serve as a committeeman.

Mary Ellen Miller, the current county chairman, says she's heard rumors that Kaplan is aiming for her job. "He even asked me if I would be seeking re-election in December," Miller recalls. (She says she has not made up her mind whether she'll run.)

"My goal right now is to be a committeeman and to help our chairman," asserts Kaplan, quickly adding that he has been approached about the chairmanship. "A lot of people say that that would be a good idea, but that's in the future," he remarks.

Meanwhile his supporters have been busy polling local committeemen to gauge their candidate's chances in the upcoming contest. While the commissioner says he doesn't know who organized the survey, he claims the results show him beating Emiliano Antunez by a two-to-one margin.

Kaplan is relatively new to Dade County Republican politics, and to the party itself. A registered Democrat until a few years ago, he even ran for office in New York as a Democrat. (He lost.) "I want to get more active in the party, to make it more meaningful than perhaps it has been over the last few years," the commissioner explains. "I think right now it's a moribund party. If I can help energize it, that is something I'm happy to do."

He has certainly succeeded in energizing debate. "People are very upset, very, very upset," says one member of the party's executive committee. "You don't start telling members that have been there for years that you're going to walk in and take over the party. You don't do that. He must have some major plans in the works."

Some speculate Kaplan intends to gain the county chairmanship as a way of amassing a power base for a run at the Dade mayor's seat in 1996, much in the same way Jeb Bush used the post to build support for his current bid for governor. "A lot of people have been talking about a lot of stuff," Kaplan notes dismissively. "I don't want to be the mayor of Dade County. I want to be a commissioner."

And, of course, a committeeman.

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