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?

Echevarria announced his candidacy for mayor early, in July of 1996, only a few months after Martinez had emerged from his seven-year legal ordeal. At the time, many assumed that Martinez, having been exonerated and having already taken back his political career, had little left to prove. Maybe he'd go to Washington, as either an elected official or -- he's a Democrat -- an appointee. The months went by; Echevarria and Penelas set their strategy and raised money, and Martinez gave no outward indication of his plans. But even as pundits were speculating that State Sen. Roberto Casas, a Martinez ally, would run against Echevarria with the outgoing mayor's blessing, Martinez announced his candidacy in May.

If the incumbent has any doubts that he made the right decision, he isn't saying so publicly. "Why would I get out of politics when I didn't do anything wrong? I think the people can see how well the city has been run under my administration," he contends. "And when my wife and I conferred with our two kids -- my son was at the university at the time, and my daughter was coming back from Washington on spring break -- my son was all gung-ho, and my daughter was really happy."

By the time Martinez entered the fray, Echevarria, who had for years said he wanted to be mayor but wouldn't run against Martinez, couldn't have backed out even if he'd wanted to. But he did turn down several opportunities to engage in debate, insisting that he had agreed to only one -- which was taped October 23 and televised October 26 by WSCV-TV (Channel 51) -- and that he needed to spend his time walking precincts and meeting with voters. Instead of the usual situation in which the challenger dares the incumbent to debate, the incumbent was taunting the challenger.

"Where's Herman?" Martinez asked one afternoon at what would have been one of three mayoral debates (the Miami Beach and Miami races were the others) hosted at Victor's Cafe by the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD). Cameras from both major Spanish-language TV stations were in attendance, as were reporters from Spanish-language radio and print media. "What is Herman afraid of?" Martinez went on. "He doesn't have anything to say that's the truth. He's an empty suit. And here's his empty chair," the mayor said, pulling a chair from one of the dining tables and placing it next to the podium. That evening's TV news reports featured empty-chair footage and sound bites of Martinez's lambasting of Echevarria. The cameras also recorded the challenger at his headquarters, where he declined to discuss the matter. (Echevarria has since agreed to a second televised debate.)

Though Echevarria has steered clear of making personal criticisms of his opponent, Martinez and his supporters commenced their attacks early and have repeated them often: the challenger's alleged communist dealings; his lack of a high school diploma; his business failures; his large personal debts (Martinez forces claim that Echevarria, who two years ago told New Times he'd once been as much as half a million dollars in the hole, still owes hundreds of thousands, but Echevarria puts the current figure at $25,000); the fact that he was fined ($100) in 1987 by the state Commission on Ethics for voting on a zoning change to benefit a business in which he had a financial interest.

Echevarria, meanwhile, has restricted himself to criticizing things like Hialeah's high unemployment rate, economic stagnation in the city, and its failure to hire enough police officers, barely making mention of Martinez's well-documented legal problems and not questioning his character.

Of course, he doesn't need to, Martinez's backers point out.
"All the details haven't come out about Herman, but there's nothing Herman can say about Raul that everyone doesn't already know," says Luis Rojas.

But while they praise their candidate's intelligence and administrative skills, even Martinez's supporters acknowledge the mayor's often-difficult personality. "Hey, he's arrogant," admits Rojas, an admirer of Martinez despite the flaws. "Raul has a lot of internal personality things that don't make him a good politician. He's a loner; he doesn't surround himself with a circle of advisers. He alienates people sometimes. He got elected very young, a very brash rising Cuban star, and he has always been a guy who doesn't listen well."

Many of his formerly devoted followers are now either working for Echevarria or have withdrawn from any political connections, a drastic measure in a town so consumed by political discourse that such a move is comparable to quitting cafe cubano cold turkey. Their ties to Martinez were emotional, and their breaks with him were emotional, though the reasons might have been politically pragmatic. A woman who runs one of Echevarria's phone banks says Martinez became her enemy after she supported a council candidate who was in disfavor with the mayor. "I worked in every one of his campaigns," recounts Dolores Losada. "Our children went to school together, he came to all of our parties. But he is a person who is very vengeful; if you're not with him, you're his enemy. I'll tell you, after all those years, it was a very painful thing to go through. I cried. But now Raul Martinez is nothing to me."

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