By Michael E. Miller
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Echevarria walks door to door almost every day, sometimes twice a day, changing clothes between each foray into Hialeah's narrow mazes of neighborhoods. At the same time he's walking one precinct, five or six groups of his volunteers are working other areas, headed up by politicians like Penelas, Millan, and Alonso, and by Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen when they're in town. Altogether, Operation New Shoes -- so dubbed by Echevarria's campaign aides -- has already taken some 400 volunteers to more than 25,000 homes.
Though his consultants aren't enthusiastic about such low-tech techniques, Penelas feels the walking is the single most important element of Echevarria's campaign, so much so that he ordered the candidate's calendar to remain open every day from 5:00 until 8:00 p.m. exclusively for walking. "I asserted myself on that issue," the county mayor says. "I really didn't care what else he needed to do -- I'd rather knock on 80 doors than go to 50 fundraisers and raise a whole bunch of money. Herman's done that walking every night, and it's going to pay off."
Each group consults street-by-street demographic profiles that tell them the names, ages, ethnicities, and party affiliations of each household with registered voters, as well as how long those voters have been registered. A volunteer drives alongside in a pick-up truck loaded with yard signs, ready for any takers. Residents who aren't home will return to find a flyer hanging from their front doorknob.
And so it is that Echevarria can stride up the walkway to a stucco bungalow, knock on the front door, and confidently call out, "Senora Navarro?"
The door opens just a little, and the candidate introduces himself in Spanish. "I'm walking through your neighborhood today, and I just wanted to introduce myself and ask for your vote," he says.
"AAy, mucho gusto!" exclaims the 32-year-old woman, opening the door and smoothing her hair. The demographic data on an aide's clipboard indicates that a family of six lives in the home, Hispanics, registered Republicans -- definitely Echevarria's type. "Wait just a minute," the woman says. "Let me call my husband to come meet you." A man appears a few seconds later, beaming, to shake Echevarria's hand. "Can I count on you on November 4?" Echevarria asks. "Si, como no," the man replies. "Of course."
"That was a 'yes,'" Echevarria nods to the aide, Francois Illas. At the end of the two- or three-hour walk, Illas will have noted a "yes," "no," or "undecided" next to the address of each house they visited. The reactions serve as an informal poll whose results are computer-crunched almost daily to provide feedback for Echevarria strategists.
"I always give [Martinez] the undecideds," the challenger explains. "Even with that, look at this: In Precinct 318, where I walked yesterday, 53 percent were with us, 29 percent were undecideds. Even giving him 100 percent of the undecideds, we're still ahead there. This is all very unscientific, but it shows you what we've been seeing."
Adds Illas: "Herman's doing precinct walking like it's never been done before. It's organized like it's never been before."
The 25-year-old aide received his master's degree last year in political science and political campaign management in a joint Florida International University-George Washington University program. He and other young people looking to make a career in politics are doing much of the campaign legwork. (Some, like long-time Echevarria aide Rolando Marante, who took a leave from his job at the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce and Industries, are volunteering. Others, like Illas, are being paid. Illas says he's not allowed by contract to reveal his salary, but expenditure reports indicate that he's earning about $300 a week.)
The system's intellectual authorship belongs to Echevarria and Penelas, whose own mayoral campaign serves as a model. "There have been aspects of my campaign we've tried to emulate," explains Penelas, "but you're talking about a much smaller area with a rich tradition in a lot of grassroots campaigning."
Sure enough, anyone who has entered Hialeah during election season can't fail to notice the surfeit of campaign signs, which bristle like bizarre cubist montages from seemingly every pole and wall. Another time-honored tradition: caravans for each candidate, featuring miles of cars adorned with signs and banners, honking, blaring salsa music, winding ceremoniously through the town, and these days often blocking streets and annoying many impatient drivers. This year Echevarria, ever the expert at political compromise, split his caravan into five smaller ones to minimize traffic problems. Still, he's spent about $30,000 to blanket Hialeah with signs and bumper stickers.
"I hate signs," Penelas laments. "The only reason I went along with it is it's Hialeah. The biggest headache I had in my [county mayor] campaign was that everybody was convinced I was going to lose because I didn't have enough signs out. Including Herman. Herman would order signs even without my authorization."
Most campaign specialists agree that such traditions are an almost complete waste of money when it comes to actually getting people to vote for your candidate. "All that grassroots stuff, signage, is not important to me," says Phil Hamersmith, a prominent Dade political consultant who at various times has worked on Penelas and Martinez campaigns. "If you go around the country to governor and Senate races and say 'grassroots,' they don't know what you're talking about. The only way to beat an institutionalized politician like Raul Martinez is with a well-run modern campaign. I don't know if Echevarria is capable of running such a campaign, but I do know Penelas is. If Penelas can take control of the campaign and go to electronic media and direct mail, Echevarria will have a chance to beat Martinez. You're talking almost exclusively Hispanic media, TV, and radio."