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The men met in the boardroom of the First National Bank, and from the outset, Herrera said, he sensed that Grace and Reynolds were behaving in a condescending manner. "This big company comes in and says, 'Who the hell is Carlos Herrera?'" he recalled. "I was put down. And it's true, who am I? So I had to explain myself to them."
According to Herrera, Grace listened warily, then let it be known he wouldn't be interested in a partnership. Herrera claimed these were Grace's exact words: "My family cannot do business with minorities."
As Herrera repeated the phrase -- "My family cannot do business with minorities" -- he became visibly agitated. "I would have taken that from Peter Grace," he said angrily, "but not from this asshole."
Herrera recounted that he became incensed, furious. As a Cuban American his pride would not allow him to spend another minute in the same room with this man. He said he stared icily across the table at Grace and declared, "This minority does not do business with assholes like you. I work for my money. It was not handed to me." And with a smug smile, he added, "Then I got up and left."
Upon request, Herrera happily retold the entire story, but in the second version, Grace's words changed slightly: "My company cannot do business with minorities." No problem, Herrera responded when the discrepancy was pointed out to him. He quickly dialed Miguel DeGrandy on his speaker phone. What were Grace's exact words, Herrera asked his attorney. A long pause ensued. "I can't recall," DeGrandy said cagily.
"You can't remember if it was 'family' or 'company'?" Herrera asked.
"I can't recall," DeGrandy repeated, and then quickly changed the subject.
No matter, Herrera maintained, the point still stood. Whichever word he used, John Grace did not deserve to do business in Dade County.
From his office in New York, Grace provided a dramatically different recollection of that October 18 meeting. The atmosphere was cordial, he said, but it became clear the two sides weren't interested in joining forces. "We just agreed we couldn't do anything together," Grace recalled. "We exchanged pleasantries and then he left."
Upon hearing Herrera's version of events, Grace initially laughed. "That doesn't make sense," he said. "It's totally untrue. The Grace family got started as a multinational company in Peru. We are a Latin American company." His own wife is Costa Rican, he noted with increasing indignation. Carlos Herrera even met her. Then: "That is a terrible thing to say about anybody. We never had any harsh words or anything. This thing never got to a personal level. That is ludicrous. Call Wiley Reynolds, ask him."
Reynolds was equally incredulous. "I was at the meeting and none of that occurred," he stated firmly.
In their defense, both Grace and Reynolds referred to Roy Phillips, president of the Homestead campus of Miami-Dade Community College. Early in their efforts to create a plan for redeveloping the air base, they contacted Phillips, who is black. "They asked me to serve on their board of directors," Phillips confirmed. "When they [Grace and Reynolds] started, the first thing they did was come to the minority community. They made it clearly known they wanted to involve everybody." Phillips said it was inconceivable that either Grace or Reynolds would make such a bigoted statement. "These are fine gentlemen," Phillips said. "I can't fathom that. I have no idea why Carlos Herrera would make a statement like that."
Miguel DeGrandy, in a later interview independent of Herrera, said that in his opinion, the meeting never became hostile, and he reiterated that he did not recall Grace making any derogatory statements about minorities. "There could have been times I wasn't in the room," he says, searching for a way out of this dilemma. DeGrandy however acknowledges that he and Herrera left the meeting at the same time and he never heard Herrera call Grace an "asshole."
A few minutes after the phone interview with DeGrandy ended, Herrera called to explain that in fact he did not call Grace an asshole. "I was telling you my personal opinion," he said, "that I thought he was an asshole." However, he did not modify his recollection of Grace's inflammatory comment about not working with minorities.
"He [Herrera] is playing the race card. But why?" asked Reynolds. "As far as we're concerned he's got the deal. He's got the right of first refusal. I don't know why he would bring this up."
"Sounds like the deal must not be in good shape," Grace added, speculating that Herrera may be trying to elicit sympathy from the commission's Hispanic majority in an effort to gain the most favorable terms for HABDI.
His use of the "race card" may have been coldly calculated or impulsively spontaneous. And it may or may not be revelatory of his business ethics. But those who know Herrera would agree that winning A whether it be a business deal or a bull's-eye at 600 yards A is a virtual obsession.
He was born in Marianao, a working-class town just outside Havana. His mother was a beautician. His father, who operated a taxi business, walked out on the family when Carlos was only a month old.