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?

Rob Schroth, a Washington-based pollster who conducted the Herald/Channel 23 poll, cautions that the challenger nevertheless faces a monumental task. "The only way to beat Raul Martinez in Hialeah in 1997 is with a perfect campaign," says Schroth, who grew up in Hialeah. "Echevarria is up against a very, very difficult political situation. You know the saying: 'If you're going to kill the king, you've got to cut his head off.' You've got to arrive with a big army. Mayor Penelas served to give Herman a nice head start, but beyond that he's on his own. [Penelas] may be very popular in Hialeah, but voters understand they're not electing him as mayor. Money and organization can buy you 48 percent of the vote in Hialeah. To go above 50 takes more, and we just don't know if Echevarria can come up with the final votes he needs for victory. Everybody else who's been given that test has failed. I'm not a Raul partisan, but as a student of politics in South Florida I've become an admirer of his numbers. He's a wonderful talent who's not going to go away easily or quickly or because of some design by Alex Penelas or Herman Echevarria or anyone else."

Two weeks before the election, speculation abounds as to what form the well-endowed Echevarria campaign will take as it moves into its final days. While Martinez appears to be sticking to his usual practice of writing just a few low-budget TV spots, Echevarria has nine professionally produced ads in the can. Still, at press time it wasn't clear when or whether he plans to bring out the heavy artillery. Says one consultant with connections in both camps who didn't want his name used: "Herman hasn't been listening to Alex as much as Alex and the big contributors think he should. There's tension, and the tension has boiled over. Remember, you're talking about how to spend $400,000 in Hialeah."

At least publicly, Raul Martinez is underwhelmed by the spectacle of Echevarria, his money, and his influential friends. "I was around before any of them," he scoffs. "I got them all elected."

When Martinez was first elected to the council in 1977 at the age of 26, he was one of three Cuban-born councilmen. Soon after he became mayor in 1981, the composition of the council shifted quickly. Echevarria was elected in 1983 after joining Martinez's slate. Penelas and Millan were elected in 1987, with the blessing of the mayor. Those alliances and friendships, however, were irrevocably altered by Martinez's indictment in 1990 on federal corruption charges. "When I got suspended from office," the mayor says, "they formed their own group, thinking I was dead."

While Penelas and Millan went on to the Dade County Commission with the advent of single-member districts in 1993, Echevarria stayed on in Hialeah, continuing to build his network of business and political allies. In 1993 he seriously considered running for mayor of Hialeah, the job he'd wanted ever since entering politics (and losing his first race for council) in 1981.

But 1993 was the year Raul Martinez decided to run again for mayor. Out of office for three years after his indictment and conviction, he was free on bond -- and free to run for office -- while his case was on appeal. When Martinez announced his intention to run against Nilo Juri for the third time, Echevarria quietly set aside his own plans and lined up behind his long-time ally. He even persuaded Penelas and Millan to campaign for Martinez -- a not-insignificant bit of diplomacy on Echevarria's part, given that by then neither commissioner was on friendly terms with Martinez. When Martinez won by a tiny margin, many insiders were convinced it was Echevarria's influence that made the difference.

A year later, in response to a lawsuit Juri filed alleging absentee vote fraud, Dade Circuit Court Judge Sidney Shapiro voided the vote and called for a new one. (Shapiro found evidence of fraud on both sides.) In the monthlong interim between the ruling and the election, Martinez voluntarily vacated his post; in his absence, the city charter called for the council president to fill in. So Echevarria moved into the mayor's wood-paneled office and sat behind the desk of legendary Hialeah Mayor Henry Milander (who himself had won re-election after pleading guilty to grand larceny in 1970). To the surprise of everyone, including his own camp, Martinez beat Juri by a wide margin in the second election.

Early in 1995 he received even better news: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta threw out his criminal conviction and ordered a new trial. In March of last year the U.S. Attorney's Office called back its witnesses to recite ten-year-old incidents in which Martinez allegedly demanded kickbacks from developers in return for zoning favors. The trial ended in a hung jury, as did a second trial two months later, and federal prosecutors finally dropped the case. A federal investigation into the 1993 absentee-ballot fraud allegations was closed in November 1996, when the lead prosecutor opted not to file charges. (Though two Martinez campaign workers had told the FBI of forged signatures and ballots submitted on behalf of mentally ill or otherwise incapacitated nursing-home residents, the prosecutor said the testimony was too contradictory for the government to make a viable case.)

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