The Kingmaker

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

Hialeah's electoral system calls for a four-year term for the mayor but puts four at-large, nonpartisan council seats up for grabs every two years. Council members' terms are determined by their vote totals. The top three vote-getters in any election serve four-year terms, while the fourth serves for only two years. Each registered voter can select up to four candidates. Fields are almost always crowded, runoffs virtually inevitable.

The system allowed Henry Milander, mayor for 30 years until his death in 1974, to keep tight control over city operations and the council, says State Rep. Luis E. Rojas. Twenty-three years ago, after his first day as a part-time city worker in Hialeah's parks department, the eighteen-year-old Rojas was pulled aside by the mayor himself. "Remember, kid, you owe your job to me," Rojas recalls the mayor telling him. Most people who know Hialeah government agree that ever since Milander's tenure A interrupted only by a brief suspension after a 1970 indictment for grand larceny (he pleaded guilty; adjudication was withheld) A Hialeah politics have been run machine-style. But the city has grown from a dirt-road racetrack town of 66,972 in 1960 to Florida's fifth-largest city, with a population of 203,000. In another profound change, the city is now 75 percent Hispanic. Yet Hialeah has remained a blue-collar industrial town, and Hialeah politics retain much of their small-town, personal character. The monolithic Milander machine has evolved into something more akin to family-style factions. "People choose sides not on whether they like or respect you but which side you're on," explains a long-time observer of Hialeah politics who didn't want his name published. "Feuds are not only mano a mano but clan versus clan." But the clans still are identified with the personality of a strong leader.

"Herman has become probably the most influential person in Hialeah. Not enough people realize that, because it's kind of happened in the recent past," says Echevarria's friend and political soulmate U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who credits Echevarria with crucial help in his 1992 Republican Congressional campaign. Diaz-Balart declines to take sides in local elections, but on runoff day he faxed a letter for Echevarria to read in radio and television appearances, congratulating him on his leadership in the campaign. "If you analyze Dade County politics today," asserts Diaz-Balart, "no one has a better or more organized political apparatus in the county, not just Hialeah."

Metro Commissioner Natacha Millan puts it simply: "I consider myself part of Herman's machine."

By 11:30 on the morning of November 14, when Echevarria's aide Roly Marante called from the county elections office with the first update, that machine was purring. The turnout in the south of Hialeah, a traditional Martinez stronghold, was twice as high as the turnout in the north, anti-administration territory. "They're history," Echevarria exulted, riding back to Hialeah from the WQBA studios with off-duty Hialeah Police Lt. Luis Diaz in Diaz's black Ford Explorer. "They are history! Take it to the bank." A friend of Echevarria's family and his occasional dominos partner, Diaz was acting as chauffeur and all-around assistant, keeping the air conditioning on high and the radio set to a country music station. Echevarria, chewing fat-burning gum to curb his tendency toward chubbiness, explained that the whiskey-bent music helped calm his eleventh-hour nerves. "On election day I never put Cuban radio on," he said. "It stresses me out too much." His pale, sharp-featured face, framed by a corona of dark hair, betrayed little emotion, his eyes narrowed, as if he were performing inner calculations.

That evening's final results were even more impressive than the primary totals had been. Not only did political newcomer Yedra, a popular actor and WQBA commentator, retain first place, but Caldwell moved up to second. Barrios came in third. Incumbent Marie Rovira, whom Martinez backed strongly, won the fourth and last seat. Not a single anti-administration candidate was elected. Incumbents Paulino Nu*ez and Isis Garcia Martinez, both positioned against the Martinez administration on the most pressing issues A the city budget, taxes, police protection, and city employee compensation A were defeated, leaving Guy Sanchez as the lone opposition voice on the council. To many, the most noteworthy phenomenon was the shutout of Nilo Juri, who had finished 28 votes behind Yedra in the primary but managed only fifth place in the runoff. "Even I was amazed," says Alex Penelas. "In private conversations, I had told Herman it was going to be impossible to keep Nilo out. I was amazed his machinery was able to function as well as it did."

Echevarria would retain his supremacy as council president.
Caldwell, Citizens Crime Watch coordinator for the Hialeah Police Department, had alienated some past supporters -- and many contributors -- because of her occasional stands against Martinez and her consistent votes against zoning changes and other requests from powerful developers. She raised practically no money early in her campaign but gained ground after securing her place on the slate. And she gives Echevarria "100 percent" credit for funding her campaign and "80 percent of the credit" for her unexpectedly strong finish.

Juri, meanwhile, doesn't hesitate to call himself a victim of the establishment. "In the runoff, we only got two days to collect contributions. That's where the machine comes in," says the vanquished candidate. "They had Casas, Diaz-Balart, Millan, Rojas, three incumbents, Echevarria as council president, and their PAC -- all bringing money in and all campaigning against me. Even if they didn't mention my name, they always talked about 'people that bring disunity because they're not with the mayor.'"

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