The Kingmaker

In the soap opera that is Hialeah politics, Herman Echevarria might be poised to supplant Raul Martinez as leading man.

Herman Echevarria wasn't running for anything, but he was campaigning as he never had before. Seated at a long table that took up most of a sound booth at WQBA-AM (1140), starched white shirt sleeves rolled up, Echevarria, president of the Hialeah City Council, held a finger above a blinking light on the phone in front of him, leaned into a microphone, and intoned, "Hoy es el dia de verdad." Today is the day of truth. It was November 14, 1995, the day Hialeah voters were to decide four at-large city council positions -- and the balance of power in the city's highly factionalized government.

On behalf of his slate of three candidates, Echevarria was conducting his first of three live half-hour paid political radio spots. He and other public figures and candidates would be making the traditional election-day peregrinations to Miami's top Spanish-language radio stations; Echevarria generally prefers that his candidates stay at the precincts and greet voters rather than accompany him to media appearances.

At another microphone across the table sat Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez, a tall, imposing presence in a glen plaid sportjacket, his hands clasped before him on the table. Martinez wasn't running for anything, either, but had lent his support to Echevarria's three candidates, as well as to one other pro-administration incumbent. The councilman and the mayor, two markedly different personalities, have forged an alliance that has run the city for a decade despite persistent challenges.

Both men had a lot at stake this election, but probably more so Echevarria, who stood to lose his council presidency if he couldn't get enough of his supporters elected -- a scenario that was not out of the question. The council president is chosen by the seven-member body after each election and is first in line to become mayor if the mayor can't serve. (Along with an annual salary of $75,755 plus $36,000 for expenses, Hialeah's strong-mayor system confers upon the city's leader almost total administrative authority. Each council member earns a salary of $2400 plus $20,400 for expenses.) With Martinez facing a second federal corruption trial in March (last year an appeals panel ordered a new trial because of flawed jury instructions and juror misconduct), the council presidency will be a more crucial position in the coming year than usual.

Also worrisome was the prospect of Martinez's arch nemesis Nilo Juri, a perennial mayoral candidate running for the council this time around, winning a seat and being voted council president. Despite Echevarria's long-held mayoral ambitions, he has always worked for Martinez against their common enemy, Juri. A well-connected Republican and the owner of two Hialeah garment factories, Juri leads a large political faction that opposes the Martinez administration as corrupt and inequitable. But neither he nor his supporters have ever had a chance to try a different approach: Juri has lost to Martinez four times since 1987, and the council majority generally has been pro-Martinez since he first took office in 1981.

Faced with the chance that Juri might usurp his job -- and then, potentially, the mayorship -- Echevarria marshaled the considerable forces he has gathered over years of networking. And in the November 7 primary, his efforts at securing moral, personal, and financial support from Dade County's political and business elite had paid off. Echevarria's trio of council candidates -- Jose "Pepe" Yedra, Raymundo Barrios, and Carmen Caldwell -- finished first, third, and fourth, respectively, out of eight finalists. Exactly one week later, four of the finalists would be eliminated.

Dade County Commissioner Natacha Millan, who sat on the Hialeah city council with Echevarria from 1987 until 1993 and whose district includes part of the city, called in to WQBA to tell listeners how proud she was to be working for the three candidates on his slate. Martinez seconded Millan's praise, noting that the three share his vision of progress for Hialeah and that they'd all work together to achieve it. "There are elements that seek to divide our community," he warned.

State Sen. Roberto Casas, a Republican from Hialeah and the first Cuban American elected to the legislature, also phoned in with an endorsement. Though Casas kept referring to a fourth candidate who deserved support, Echevarria adroitly thanked the senator and punched another button on the phone before the senator was able to mention a name. After another phoned-in homily from county commissioner and former Hialeah council president Alex Penelas (his district also includes part of Hialeah), the half-hour was over.

As Martinez and Echevarria took cordial leave of one another, a political spot directed at City of Miami voters was airing for the third time that hour. A lurid attack on Miami City Commissioner Victor De Yurre, it accused the incumbent of drug trafficking. (De Yurre would lose his seat to Joe Carollo in the runoff that same day.) The WQBA staffers, having survived what they feared would be "a shootout in the hallway" earlier that morning between Carollo and De Yurre, expressed relief at the civility displayed by the pair of Hialeah politicos.

Indeed, there had been no overt sign of the intense maneuvering just beneath the surface of this effective and durable alliance, nor of the widening divisions that threatened to undermine Echevarria even as he was prepared to lay claim to his most striking political success to date.

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