By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
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.'"
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.
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.
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.
"That was a great experience back then for me," says Echevarria. "You learn when you're in public office you have to walk a straight line. Your political enemies can use even a perception against you."
Some find such comments disingenuous. "The guy is a thief and a crook and a liar," scoffs ex-councilman Julio Martinez, who served as acting mayor for about three years after Raul Martinez (no relation) was indicted. "I've told him to his face."
While Echevarria says he got out of the construction business soon after his run-in with the ethics commission, it took a while. Besides SAE Construction, incorporated in 1981, he formed three other corporations at different times in the late Eighties, each to handle different projects. By November 1988 the companies were dissolved, and Echevarria was facing several lawsuits from creditors.
The cause of his woes was the failure of Global Bank. In 1984, wanting to take advantage of federal bank deregulation and Dade's booming Latin market, Echevarria and 49 other Hialeah investors had each put up $50,000 to start Global. Echevarria was chairman; directors included his friend Silvio Cardoso, a developer and former councilman who was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1988 on charges of bribing an undercover police officer. (Cardoso received probation after pleading guilty, and in 1991 testified against Raul Martinez in his trial.) During that time of financial growth in South Florida, Echevarria recalls, Hialeah was home to 36 bank branches and offices. Today there are about a third as many.
The state ordered Global closed in 1988 -- the bank had had only one profitable year -- and the shareholders lost their investments. Auditors cited unwise lending practices, poor internal controls, and above-market rates paid for deposits, according to state comptroller Gerald Lewis. "There was no problem with Global Bank in reference to any ethical problems," Echevarria says. "None of us were really bankers. It was just a bad business deal, period."
Peter Castellanos, a long-time banker who was Global Bank president for a year and a half after its inception, says he resigned to protect his good name. After Cardoso and Echevarria, among other politicians, were named in a 1985 Miami Herald series detailing questionable zoning practices in Hialeah, Castellanos says, regulators called him from Tallahassee. "They're directors of the bank. What's going on?" Castellanos recalls the officials asking. "After I left [the directors] did pretty much what they wanted to do. The ones who suffered were the depositors and stockholders. I thought these people being from Hialeah, being politicians, they would want to look good."
According to court records, after Global failed, Echevarria was hit by lawsuits from three banks and a mortgage company seeking to collect on loans he'd stopped paying back. Attempts to garnishee his council salary and expense account were unsuccessful, as were endeavors to seize assets of several health care related companies with which he was then associated. His wife went back to work, and Echevarria negotiated payment plans with each creditor. He says his debt amounted to about $500,000 and is now down to $250,000. He's currently paying $500 per month to Continental National Bank of Miami, which obtained a $59,000 judgment against him in 1990. That same year Echevarria agreed to pay $350 per month to Capital Bank, which in 1985 had lent him $100,000. He owed Terrabank $219,000 but says he has paid that off.
In his work with the Chamber of Commerce and with the Hialeah Foundation, Echevarria remains heavily involved in the business community. The foundation, which has been in existence since 1989, has become more active in the past three years. A tax-exempt organization, the group spends only 17 percent of its annual revenues on actual donations to worthy causes, far below the 50 percent minimum recommended by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Its fundraising and administrative costs, which in 1993 came to 65 percent of its income, exceeds the maximum of 50 percent recommended by the council. Echevarria says the percentages are somewhat misleading in that the foundation raises money by staging events for the paying public, not by soliciting donations, and thus its overhead is high.
The celebration at the Caldwell headquarters on November 7, the night primary results were declared, seemed to distill the formula for political success in Hialeah, a formula that has never failed for Raul Martinez or Herman Echevarria, because it remains faithful to Hialeah's ethnic homogeneity and to the relatedness the populace feels despite the most emotional and personal of feuds. This night, a television under the blue-and-white-striped tent behind the building aired hour after hour of telenovelas, the medium that originally made Pepe Yedra famous among his fellow Cuban exiles. On this occasion they provided a flickering backdrop for the surprised jubilation of the crowd when Yedra was announced as the top vote-getter.
As is customary after victory is declared, Echevarria gathered with his candidates and other key helpers on a small platform next to the tent. Natacha Millan was there; so was Roberto Casas. The full moon shone on long tables laden with very American hot dogs and mounds of buns. Echevarria, in his customary role as leader, served as informal master of ceremonies to the obligatory speeches: thanks to the voters and workers, acknowledgement of the candidates, brief disparagement of Juri, calls for unity, celebration of family and friendship. "We invite with open arms the other candidates to join us as we move forward with this battle," Echevarria called out in Spanish -- campaigns are conducted almost exclusively in Spanish. "We can't rest on our laurels. We're all going to work together, shoulder to shoulder, with the support that you have given us, Hialeah. Thanks to our wives, thanks to our brothers."
With that, he introduced a beaming Yedra, who raised his arms, basking in cheers from the growing crowd of about 700. As Yedra thanked God, his wife, and the people, Alex Penelas made his way through the throng to the platform.
When Penelas stepped up to the stage, Echevarria hailed him as the next mayor of Dade County. "From my heart," Penelas responded, "I feel deeply that all of you are my family; I'm proud to have you as my family and proud to have your support in the last four years."
Echevarria cautioned that the election still wasn't won, that more work was needed for the big push to the following week's runoff: "I'm not going to eat the victory cake yet," he said, "but shoulder to shoulder, working together with the support of the people of Hialeah, these three candidates are going to win."
And then, despite the fact that he continues to this day to assert that he won't run against Raul Martinez for mayor as long as Martinez is in office, Echevarria added, "God willing, in '97 there will be a surprise for everyone. Gracias, y que viva Hialeah!