The Old School of Power

He has been enormously influential for 34 years, yet Pat Tornillo -- politically astute leader of Dade's teachers' union -- remains a mystery to most

Tornillo and company did not officially select the union's candidates for endorsement, but by the time of the strategy meeting at Mario's Il Palio Tornillo had already spoken with many who were running. He told them they would have to collect ample funding on their own before they could hope for union support, which would include financial contributions and volunteers. He had questioned their political philosophies and their views on issues that affected teachers.

Among the candidates, Manty Sabates Morse soon emerged as a contender in District 6, where two traditionally strong incumbents -- Janet McAliley and Rosa Castro Feinberg -- both lived. Sisser was friendly with Sabates Morse's husband, State Rep. Luis Morse, and donated $500 to her campaign shortly after she filed for the race, in July of last year.

About the same time, Tornillo invited McAliley to lunch at Mario's Il Palio and offered her a candid analysis of her chances. As a liberal Anglo Democrat, McAliley had three strikes against her in the majority Hispanic district. "He said, 'We are going to pick our candidates now, and if you're not on the bandwagon, you're out of the running,'" she recalls. "I told him he'd look ridiculous." This past July she officially declined to run.

This past spring Tornillo secured Luis Morse's assistance in the legislature. Morse successfully sponsored a union-backed bill giving teachers -- not administrators -- the right to kick unruly students out of class, a powerful diminution of principals' authority in the classroom. In July a panel of union members from UTD and the AFL-CIO agreed to support Sabates Morse in the general election. By that time she had raised $76,000, and a handful of Republicans had declined to run against her. She faced no primary challenge.

The District 4 primary race in Hialeah proved more problematic. Hamersmith and Sisser recommended that the union back a candidate who could gather a consensus from the city's rival political factions. But no consensus candidate was to be found. "We came to the conclusion that whoever Raul Martinez wanted would win, so Ricky and myself, we went to visit Raul Martinez," Hamersmith says.

The mayor supported Republican Julio Robaina. So did the union. Robaina won a plurality of the votes, but by a small margin. The second-ranking candidate, Perla Tabares-Hantman, a member of the Florida Board of Regents, has the support of U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade Community College. "I think it's going to be a dog fight in the runoff," Tornillo predicts.

If District 4 presented complications, District 8 was downright scary for Tornillo. As the July filing deadline neared, no one seemed capable of beating Carlos Manrique, a religious conservative Tornillo feared could use Cuban radio to win the election. In neighboring District 5, another strident conservative, former Miami city commissioner Demetrio Perez, Jr., also would undoubtedly win, no matter who opposed him, according to the union's analysis.

Tornillo and crew decided they could not run a successful candidate against Perez, but they could defeat Manrique with the right person. "We sought out Renier Diaz de la Portilla," Hamersmith says. Brother Alex is a state representative and brother Miguel a popular county commissioner. "It doesn't take political consultants and Nostradamus to figure out this guy can do it."

The United Teachers of Dade scored five victories in the primaries, spent nearly $300,000, and suffered no losses. In addition to Diaz de la Portilla and Robaina, UTD-endorsed Democratic incumbent Frederica Wilson easily won re-election in District 1. In District 2, UTD-endorsed Solomon "Sol" Stinson conducted such an effective campaign that he easily polled the highest number of votes in his primary. And incumbent Democrat Betsy Kaplan trounced her lesser-known opponent in District 9. All union-backed candidates are now well positioned for the November general election.

The success of the union's favored candidates in this first-ever school board election by district could only enhance Tornillo's power within the UTD, and will make it that much more difficult to replace him when he retires, which he has promised to do in the year 2000.

But some observers believe that the expected results may not be that healthy for the schools or the UTD. For not only will Tornillo have ushered in a new school board, his activities will also have helped to attract hundreds of thousands of dollars from special interests. Manty Sabates Morse, for example, has collected thousands from developers and lawyers who could profit from her votes on the school board. Like the other new, Hispanic candidates endorsed by the UTD, Sabates Morse has never volunteered or otherwise worked in the school community. Each does, however, have some relationship with the county's various political dynasties. "When people come in who have never shown an interest in volunteering for schools and then they decide to break into politics this way, I'm disgusted," outgoing board member Janet McAliley fumes.

In response to such unabashed idealism, consultant Phil Hamersmith gives a philosophical shrug. "Politics is not the art of mysticism," he says. "It is a nitty-gritty, practical, businesslike world. There's no point in supporting someone who is ideologically perfect and winning zero. Your first and last priority is winning."

Pat Tornillo thoroughly understands that sentiment. He has been winning for more than 30 years. There's certainly no reason to stop now.

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