The Kingmaker

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

This time around, some interesting slate card modifications circulated as a result of an unprecedented rift in the pro-administration camp. Even in the soap opera that is Hialeah politics, this recently developed subplot, as they say in Cuban Spanish, "le ronca el mango" -- it takes the cake. The discord involves Echevarria and incumbent Marie Rovira, a business owner first elected to the council in 1993 on Echevarria's slate. The Echevarrias are, in fact, godparents of Rovira's three-year-old son. Rovira was to be at the top of Echevarria's slate again in 1995. But about two months before the primary, Echevarria and Rovira had a falling-out that soon showed itself to be more profound than a simple political spat.

Rovira says Echevarria reneged on his promises to raise money for her; he accuses Rovira of insisting he help her exclusively and, as he puts it, "asking for favors with a gun." Each complains of being defamed and undermined by the other. For Rovira or any candidate in Hialeah, not getting on a slate makes it doubly hard to win. But she still had the support of many of the city's most influential politicians, who were angry at Echevarria's rejection of rapprochement.

"I had no other option but to go to the mayor and Senator Casas and say I'd like to know if I still have your commitment," Rovira says. "The day of the inauguration of my headquarters, there was only one person missing, and that was Herman. He is completely untrustworthy."

State Rep. Luis Rojas, a usually low-key administration supporter, went out of his way to work for Rovira. With Raul Martinez recording radio commercials and also helping with fundraising, Rovira raised more than $35,000 in the final week -- $8000 more than any other candidate. Casas joined in the effort (it was Rovira the senator was trying to name in his election-day call to WQBA that was cut short by Echevarria).

But who had the slate cards printed up with Rovira's name added to Echevarria's three? And what about the pink cards that hit the precincts about four hours before closing time, with incumbent Isis Garcia Martinez's name listed along with the other three. A shock given that Garcia is an outspoken critic of the administration and supported Nilo Juri in the last mayoral election. But to some observers, who accuse Echevarria of doing everything possible to thwart Rovira, it made sense. Rovira and others say they heard Echevarria's workers urge voters to choose Garcia. "I found people in the polls who told me they were voting for Isis because people from Herman's camp told them to," says Casas. "That's why me and Raul went out last week and made a lot of phone calls. I went to friends' buildings and talked to them. Herman and I have been working together for a long time, and we got along real good until this election. That's the course it took."

Echevarria denies stumping for anyone other than his three candidates. Adds Garcia, "I never did get to see those cards. But when Herman does something, he does it publicly, not underground."

Regardless of the degree to which Echevarria may have worked against Rovira or for Garcia, his refusal to toe the line set down by Raul Martinez is seen as his most overt declaration of independence. "They were political allies by necessity," says a friend of Echevarria who didn't want his name published. "There was a strained relationship there, and I think it's getting worse. There really is a division now in Hialeah, not between Raul and Nilo but between Raul and Herman."

Martinez concedes no conflict between himself and Echevarria, either in general or over the Rovira incident. "Herman did what he thought was right," the mayor declares.

Echevarria adds that there is no grand significance to his break with Rovira. "I made a commitment to support three candidates. I would never do anything to harm my relationship with the people who have helped me and worked with me over the years. To be honest, Marie Rovira isn't my political enemy. My political enemy is Nilo Juri, and he's out of the race."

Despite the encouraging outcome of the election, political analyst and pollster Sergio Bendixen doesn't think Echevarria is quite ready to go head to head with Martinez. "To some extent it marked the beginning of what may be a friendly struggle between them," says Bendixen, who is based in Los Angeles but comes to Dade for most major elections. "Politics makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes the best friends become worst enemies or the worst enemies become best friends. I think Raul still is in charge and it showed with Rovira: He came out swinging, and she beat Juri. I think Herman picked good candidates, he has great organizational skills, he's a great popular figure, but I don't think he's in Raul's category as far as popularity or power."

"Herman is the best promoter I've ever met," says State Rep. Luis Rojas. "But people who are promoters live off perception, and you can't live off that for long."

Echevarria likes to say he and his family were the first rafters. His parents fled Camagey, Cuba, with their three children on an eighteen-foot boat, just as Tropical Storm Ella was gathering strength in the Caribbean in 1966. At the end of a harrowing twelve-hour voyage through 40-foot waves, Echevarria recalls, they were pulled aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and brought to Key West. Before the 1959 revolution, his family owned the island of Cayo Coco where they raised cattle. His father's father had been a local elected official; he traces his family line back to the Spanish court in the Fifteenth Century. The Castro government confiscated Cayo Coco (now among Cuba's most touted tourist attractions), and Herman's father Aureliano became part of a network that helped people escape the island by boat. One afternoon Aureliano was informed that the police were preparing to arrest him. The family left that evening. Herman was eleven. His sister Maria was seven, his brother Andres only two.

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