The Kingmaker

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

Once in Hialeah, Herman attended North Hialeah Elementary and began adjusting to the new culture. He says he was the "third or fourth" Cuban kid to enroll in his class. The cattleman Aureliano got a job as an aluminum worker and after a few years opened his own shop, Climate Aluminum Products, on East 29th Street.

When Herman was about thirteen and a student at Hialeah Junior High, he walked into the Royal Market just down the street from where he lived, and asked the owners, Rudy and Daisy Robaina, whether they needed part-time help. "That was his first job, peeling onions, marking merchandise, picking up bottles (that was when there was a deposit), that sort of thing," remembers Daisy Fernandez (she has since remarried). After a stint working for the City of Hialeah, she is now administrative assistant to Alex Penelas.

When Aureliano Echevarria opened his aluminum shop, Herman went to work there, making aluminum shutters and other such apparatus, and handling sales. In 1973 he graduated from Hialeah High School. "I had two alternatives," he recalls. "Go to college or continue in business. I was already a businessman, so I decided to continue in business. I think I've always been very astute in business."

Until last year, Echevarria was chief executive officer for Health Diagnostic Inc., which performed medical tests for health maintenance organizations. That company, which was owned by Echevarria's father-in-law, Jose Saldala, was sold. The Meka Group, Echevarria's current employer, is owned by his friend Manuel Machado. According to financial disclosure reports, in the recent Hialeah elections, the four winning candidates and a political action committee that supported Echevarria's slate paid about $23,000 to Meka for advertising, radio production, printing, and consultation services. Last year Echevarria was executive producer of a martial-arts film called Mortal Contact, which was directed by Hialeah police officer Carlos Hernandez.

By the time Echevarria was 21, he was a member of the board of directors of the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and it was at a chamber-sponsored festival at the Palm Springs Mile Shopping Center -- Echevarria was emceeing the Miss Hialeah pageant -- that he met Ileana Saldala, a seventeen-year-old Central High student who was among the contestants. She came in second, Echevarria recalls. "I saw that brown hair and those green eyes and I said, I'm in trouble now." A year later they were married. Ileana is an ultrasound technician, but these days she doesn't work outside their home in the attractive Marivi Gardens subdivision in central Hialeah, and Echevarria didn't want her interviewed for this story. The Echevarrias have two sons, Nelson, seventeen, and Herman, ten.

During the Seventies, the first wave of Cuban immigrants was becoming established in Hialeah, and in 1975 a Cuban was elected to the city council. Many who knew Echevarria back then say they never doubted that the personable, community-minded young man would gravitate toward politics. "He was born a politician," says Emma del Castillo, who has known the Echevarrias for 25 years and who has worked as office manager at the Hialeah Chamber since a year after its inception in 1979. "Sometimes I say, 'Herman why don't you quit? You don't need this aggravation.' But his wife says, 'Emma, he can't, it's in his blood.'"

In 1981, encouraged by rising political star Miriam Alonso, Echevarria ran for city council and lost by fourteen votes. That same year, Raul Martinez was elected to his first term as mayor. One of the issues that benefited Martinez was an embarrassing faux pas by then-mayor Dale Bennett and the Chamber of Commerce. Bennett and Chamber president Rafael Alvarez awarded the key to the city to a visiting Cuban official, resulting in a public outcry and the ousting of Alvarez -- and his replacement by Echevarria. He had run on Bennett's slate in the primary, but after Bennett was eliminated, Echevarria allied himself with the charismatic young Martinez. In 1983 Echevarria did not run for office but was appointed to Hialeah's Planning and Zoning Board, one of the most powerful bodies in a city where zealous developers were vying for zoning changes and variances to allow them to fill acre after acre with apartment buildings and malls.

Aureliano Echevarria died of cancer in 1985, too soon to see his son's election to the city council later that year. Beginning then, Echevarria reflects, "my life became very complicated." He continued to operate the aluminum company until it was sold two years later. Toward the end of 1985, he and Vincent Leal, another former zoning board member, received notice that they were being investigated by the state commission on ethics. While on the board, Echevarria had voted to rezone a lot on West Fourth Avenue to allow the construction of an office building. The building was to house newly organized Global Bank, of which Echevarria was a director and stockholder. The commission also investigated Echevarria's vote to change the zoning on a property on East Tenth Street to allow duplexes to be built there. A few months after that decision, he bought the property and SAE Construction Corp., a company he owned, began erecting duplexes. The commission substantiated only the first charge, and in 1986 Echevarria was fined $100. Leal, who in 1990 was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal grand jury indictment of Raul Martinez, was fined $1000 by the commission.

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