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While the 42-year-old Echevarria, who is the chief financial officer for a large downtown ad agency, steadfastly sticks to "the issues" in this race -- unemployment, crime, economic development -- the election is in many ways a referendum on one man. Devoted followers and avowed enemies alike acknowledge that Raul Martinez evokes such strong feelings that most of the votes in past mayoral elections have been either for or against him; the opponent is almost irrelevant.
Martinez has never run a race like this one, though, never faced an opponent like Echevarria. In order to win, he'll need all of his considerable talents. But more than once in his twenty-year political career he has been thrown into the crematorium of political has-beens and emerged without a singed hair on his (now graying) head. "My obituary has been written many times," he says. "But I'm still here."
More than a few of Martinez's supporters wondered at his decision to run this year against a popular elected official who has mounted the best-funded and highest-profile campaign ever seen in Hialeah.
He has opted to go out against the great army of Dade, commanded with precision by his former protege Alex Penelas, who has committed himself and his prodigious resources to making Echevarria mayor of Hialeah. Flanking Penelas on the battlefield: Republican U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former head of the Dade Republican Party Jeb Bush, Republican State Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rudy Garcia, County Commissioners Natacha Millan and Miriam Alonso, a multitude of other local elected officials, and several candidates for Hialeah City Council who are running as a pro-Echevarria slate. They're all out there knocking on doors and calling on contributors. The Police Benevolent Association that represents the city's police officers has endorsed Echevarria and has been running radio ads and bus signs highly critical of Martinez, who angered the rank-and-file by, among other things, vetoing a contract that included a retroactive pay raise.
Up until eighteen months ago, Echevarria and Martinez were long-time political allies, working together in opposition to many of the same candidates who are now running on Echevarria's slate. The council president inherited most of the anti-Martinez forces when he announced his candidacy; loyalties solidified when Martinez's perennial rival Nilo Juri decided not to run for mayor and endorsed Echevarria instead.
By election day this Tuesday, November 4, Echevarria expects to have spent an unheard-of-in-Hialeah $450,000. Martinez says he'll have raised about $275,000. More significant is how each side will spend its money, and here the prospects look bleaker for Martinez, by virtue of Alex Penelas's proven ability to package an effective modern campaign, as he did last year when he ran for Dade County mayor and garnered nearly 61 percent of the vote. Hialeah's favorite youngest son, who came up through the city's family-style political system and sat on the council for four years alongside Echevarria, has emerged a rising star on the national horizon, and he didn't do it by putting up a lot of signs with his name on them. He hired a national polling firm, poured money into tightly targeted broadcast and direct-mail advertising, and kept his face before the voters, on television and in personal appearances.
Now that approach has come to Hialeah, courtesy of what most observers consider an increasingly well-established countywide political machine with Penelas at its hub. "From a political perspective, this race will define Dade County for the next ten years," asserts State Rep. Luis Rojas of Hialeah, a staunch Martinez ally. "The Penelas forces are trying to create a machine to control the county."
Hialeah isn't exactly like the rest of Dade. This working-class town of 212,000 is 90 percent Hispanic, with Latins composing 78 percent of all registered voters. Hialeah had strong connections to Cuba in the Fifties, even before the Communist revolution sent many thousands of emigrants to join family members here, and before many thousands more joined them from all over Latin America, eventually relegating to near-invisibility the once omnipotent Anglos and a tiny outpost of black residents.
Hialeah, its citizens like to say, has always been acogedor -- welcoming, hospitable -- but as it embraced more and more Hispanic newcomers, it has become something slightly different: an ethnically homogeneous city, in many ways a world unto itself. "People in Hialeah don't like intruders," says City Councilman Raymundo Barrios, a Martinez supporter who believes voters will resent the invasion of "outsiders" like the heavy hitters in Echevarria's camp. They, he alleges, have abandoned their commitment to the community as they followed their aspirations to higher office and larger constituencies.
Forty days before the election, the Miami Herald and WLTV-TV (Channel 23) released the results of a poll that showed Martinez nine points ahead of Echevarria, with the mayor's strongest support coming from women and elderly voters. Both candidates said they were encouraged by the figures -- Martinez because he was ahead, Echevarria because he seemed to be gaining. (A few months earlier the challenger had commissioned his own poll, conducted by Frederick Schneiders Research, a Washington, D.C.-based polling firm that Penelas uses. Echevarria's camp didn't release the results, but the word among local political operatives had Echevarria somewhere between eleven and eighteen points behind at that time.)