The Kingmaker

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

The media deemed the election a reaffirmation of Martinez's popularity following his defeat of Juri in a special mayoral election a year ago. The fact that the fourth candidate Martinez supported, Marie Rovira, was the one who edged out Juri this time, was telling.

But some analysts were also saying what many in Hialeah already thought: Herman Echevarria was the real power, the kingmaker who would be king, and who would almost certainly run for mayor in 1997 -- with or without Martinez's cooperation.

"This election showed that Herman's the new sheriff in town," declares one Hialeah politician who didn't want to be named in print.

But another administration ally cautions, also anonymously, "I think Herman is getting delusions of grandeur. He's always been successful because he's been part of this group, but now he's trying to show he's a power broker."

Echevarria's kingmaker status solidified last December, during a month of campaigning for a special mayoral election. Dade Circuit Judge Sidney Shapiro had ordered the vote following a lawsuit Nilo Juri filed. Juri had alleged vote fraud in the previous year's mayoral race, which Martinez won thanks to an overwhelming edge in absentee ballots -- Juri had garnered 105 more votes than Martinez at the polls. Determining that vote fraud had occurred on both sides, the judge gave Hialeah 30 days to hold a new election. Martinez stepped down in the interim, and Echevarria, as council president, temporarily moved into the mayor's office. But as he had in 1993, Echevarria put aside his ambitions and worked for Martinez. The mayor had not been on good terms with the two Hialeah county commissioners, Penelas and Millan, but Echevarria knew their pull could help Martinez, who needed all the help he could get. Much of the popular wisdom had Juri winning the special election, given the narrow margin of his 1993 defeat and the success of his lawsuit. Echevarria got on the phone to his friends and persuaded them to join his effort. Martinez won decisively. "Herman did play a pivotal role in my supporting Raul," Penelas says now. "Not that Raul and I were so far apart from each other, but we had our spats and differences."

Echevarria, who turned 40 this past May, clearly revels in the flesh-pressing, promoting, and deal-making of politics. Even political opponents consider him to be open-minded and conciliatory, and in the past few years he has shown increasing administrative and leadership capabilities. Many cite the city budget deliberations of 1992, when Echevarria rewrote acting mayor Julio Martinez's budget and got his version passed by the council. His visibility in the community is enhanced through his work as (unpaid) executive director of the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce and Industries and as chairman of the nonprofit Hialeah Foundation, which donates money to charitable and community projects. Both organizations sponsor high-profile annual fundraising events, all faithfully captured on the social pages of Spanish-language publications.

Echevarria is chief financial officer of The Meka Group, an advertising and public relations firm, but during campaigns he and his wife Ileana work practically every waking hour, walking door to door, making phone calls, appearing at shopping centers, instructing workers, and attending what Hialeah residents call "coffees," small gatherings of neighbors in private homes. The Echevarrias made Carmen Caldwell's campaign headquarters on East 49th Street their base of operations for this year's elections. On the day of the runoff, Echevarria was outside by 6:30 a.m. while workers filled coolers with ice and lifted them onto pickup trucks along with cartons of sandwiches and sodas to deliver to each of Hialeah's 32 precincts. Campaign workers came by to pick up signs and T-shirts and small "palm cards," also known as "slate cards," displaying the names and corresponding ballot numbers of Echevarria's three-candidate slate.

When he wasn't making media appearances, Echevarria kept in touch with his workers and the candidates by radio and cell phone, making sure workers had enough signs and cards, and occasionally speeding to a voting site to defuse one of the fights that seem to ignite naturally in Hialeah's emotion-packed political arena. (Hialeah gadfly Evelio Medina came to blows with a worker at one polling place; WLTV-TV [Channel 23] cameras at another site captured a pushing match among candidate Raymundo Barrios, a Juri staffer, and Mayor Martinez.)

And, as usual, there were the slate-card wars to contend with. In every election, for reasons of ego or sabotage or simple necessity, several versions of the "official" slate cards reach the precincts, often causing confusion among voters and consternation among campaign workers. In Hialeah, where a candidate is defined by which faction he or she is with, being on or off a certain slate card can mean the difference between winning or losing. A name may be added to or omitted from one card, or a candidate might decide to print up his own card and hand it out in defiance of previous agreements to function as part of a whole. Some cards look real but have the wrong ballot numbers, compelling candidates and campaign workers to drive to each polling place, grab the offending cards, and substitute the "right" ones.

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