Elector Set

No doubt about it, Raul Martinez is Hialeah's mayor-for-life. The question is: Can Herman Echevarria's Penelas-driven political machine succeed in killing him?

The 1997 Hialeah mayoral race is already moving along at a brisk clip by this Saturday morning in mid-October, but everyone knows the ride's going to get a lot rougher very soon. This is a landmark election in Hialeah, and in Dade County too, although right now the scene at Chico's Restaurant looks and sounds a lot like every other campaign breakfast the venerable eatery and political melting pot has hosted during its seventeen years of existence. Which means much rhetoric about Cuba woven into occasional attacks on political opponents and discussion of crime, jobs, and potholes.

A group of politicians, ex-political prisoners, and other anti-Castro exiles is arrayed around a makeshift banquet table -- actually a half-dozen square tables pushed together -- in the middle of Chico's dining room. At the head, his back to the restaurant's bumper sticker-plastered glass front doors, sits the guest of honor, Mayor Raul Martinez. Between bites of scrambled eggs and ham and French fries, the six-foot-two incumbent, dressed in his usual dark suit, starched white shirt, and tie, rises to shake hands with the supporters who have come by to wish him well in his bid for re-election. Such scenes are enacted everywhere the mayor goes, rituals with a strongly Latin overtone in this town, the most predominantly Hispanic major city in the nation, in the fine tradition of citizens approaching their jefe, their benefactor.

Several of those assembled around the table are also anxious to offer their tributes to the man who has dominated the state's fifth-largest city for thirteen years. But first things first. This occasion, like most political gatherings of Cuban-born South Floridians, requires homage to the dream of a communism-free island, even if there's little they or their elected leaders can do to fulfill that dream.

"Our principal cause is Cuba, and the fight to free our homeland," proclaims Pedro Rodriguez Medina, president of Resistencia Civica Anti-Comunista Cubana -- and, incidentally, a cousin of Martinez's opponent, Hialeah City Council President Herman Echevarria. "We've all risked our lives for our consciences, and so many people in this country have helped us. It's our obligation to lend our solidarity and support to them, and so we are grateful for everything Raul Martinez has done for us."

Fellow resistor Rolando Alvarez arises. "Herman Echevarria keeps saying he has a magic formula to make Hialeah rich," he declares. "But why didn't he tell anyone about it all those years [he was on the city council]? It reminds me of what we used to say in [the Havana neighborhood] Santo Suarez: If you don't bring a baseball, you can't play in the game."

Now the mayor launches one of his several patented attacks on his rival, pointing out that in 1979 Echevarria attended a Hialeah Chamber of Commerce function at which a visiting Cuban official was presented with a key to the city. "There's concern here about the fact that that organization presented a key to a member of the Communist Party," Martinez says, his voice hardening indignantly. "I have a photograph of my opponent giving him a key. We have to remember that this is part of his life; this is the kind of person he is."

While some of those present nod in agreement, the rest are silent; it seems that twenty years is sufficient time for this incident to have lost some of its power to provoke. Indeed, just a week ago Echevarria was feted by a couple of other groups of former political prisoners who were evidently unfazed by the story, or, for that matter, by another allegation of the same vintage; namely, that Echevarria transacted business in Cuba while on a visit in 1980. (He contends that it was merely a family visit).

Still, one onlooker, a young man in T-shirt and shorts who has been among the constant gaggle hanging out at Chico's coffee window or in the general vicinity of the front door, is moved by the mayor's denunciations. He steps eagerly to Martinez's side, an obvious interloper among the well-dressed, neatly coifed, and older group. "Excuse me, Senor Alcalde," the man begins, and Martinez looks up at him with a smile. "I'm not Cuban, I'm from Nicaragua, but we too suffered because of communism, and we're all united in the cause. I want to thank you for your support. You're doing a great job. Thank you." The man drifts away to light applause. Styrofoam cups of cafe con leche arrive and the speeches resume, interspersed with more visits from reverent onlookers, until it's time for the mayor to depart for another campaign stop, the dedication of a new medical center.

Echevarria will be there too, and the occasion will highlight the two candidates' vastly different personalities and campaign styles: the regal, charismatic Martinez holding court while the engaging Echevarria, known for his accessibility and his skills at consensus-building, grasps as many hands and inquires about as many families as he can. Another difference: the young men who shadow Echevarria with cell phones and clipboards at the ready, able to call up facts, dates, and statistics at a moment's notice, to point out perhaps a study the candidate hasn't mentioned or a person he hasn't noticed. Martinez has no such assistance. While his wife Angela, secretary Mabel Mizrahi, and others play indispensable organizational roles, the incumbent isn't big on strategy or statistics. He is his own computer printout; he can make a 30-minute data-packed speech in English and then repeat it in Spanish, virtually word for word, without notes.

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