Small Town, Big Hell

Election time in Sweetwater is just another pretext for this rancorous city to go nuts

Miami-Dade County's Eleventh Circuit Court Judge Eleanor Schockett grew testier by the minute. At the request of the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, she scheduled what she thought would be a two-hour emergency hearing at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. As the hearing passed its fourth hour and barreled toward a fifth, she saw no end in sight. "It is now twenty minutes after seven. I think they turned the air conditioner off for the weekend. Y'all might want to keep that in mind," she reproached the opposing counsels.

Crammed into the little courtroom, the crowd of about 30 people sat patiently. Most were residents of Sweetwater, a city in west Miami-Dade County where people regularly insult each other in council meetings that stretch into the early morning hours. Those who live in Sweetwater have come to expect political discourse in their city will involve a lot of lawyers, and never more so than around election time. Only 24 days away from a May 11 vote to choose a mayor and three council members, the hearing proved Sweetwater's silly season to be in full swing.

David Leahy, Miami-Dade supervisor of elections, had held off mailing 322 absentee ballots pending the results of the case. Judge Schockett could hardly be faulted if she assumed the issue of whether Sweetwater city councilman Manuel Marono, Jr., truly resided within a city eight-tenths of a square mile long might be easy to resolve. (Marono now lives within the limits; whether or not he did during the six months before he registered his candidacy is the debate.) Among those who believe Marono did not live within the limits are Humberto Mesa, a candidate for another council seat, and Benito Filomia, who had failed to qualify for residency for his own council race. The two filed a joint complaint with county authorities.

But this is Sweetwater, and this case is not just about the location of the Marono household. Some hope that eliminating Marono from the ballot will hurt other candidates as well. The 27-year-old is a protege of council president and mayoral candidate Jose "Pepe" Diaz, as well as a member of his five-person ticket (one incumbent is running unopposed). Diaz took a day off from campaigning to watch the hearing. His opponent, current Mayor Gloria Bango, wanted to attend but her husband Reinaldo convinced her it would be inappropriate. Instead she nervously awaited the results in her Sweetwater home.

It's also assumed larger forces in the county play a part in the trial, and in the election. The Diaz camp sees County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, in whose district Sweetwater falls, behind a prosecution that did not come cheap. (Alonso, through a spokesperson, insists she is not supporting anyone in the Sweetwater elections.) "They are just jealous," says Mesa, who works as a county process server and who also insists Alonso did not help bankroll the case. It's not just Alonso; the mayors of Miami-Dade County and Hialeah are rumored to be backing various candidates.

At the table along with Mesa and Filomia, who is a gas station owner, sat lawyer Benedict Kuehne (president of the Dade County Bar Association) and private investigator Hugh Cochran (a former FBI special agent). Marono had former Sweetwater City Attorney Gus Efthimiou and Charles Toledo, former police chief, to represent him. The two ex-city officials say they are working pro bono. Shortly before 8:00 p.m., as Efthimiou prepared to call a string of family and friends on behalf of Marono, an exasperated Judge Schockett stopped the proceedings and ordered a continuance until a later date. (The date has not been formally set.)

Tiny Sweetwater is squeezed between SW 107th Avenue and Florida's Turnpike just north of FIU's University Park Campus. There are well over 15,000 residents in the city, more than 90 percent of them Hispanic. By some accounts they are divided almost equally between Cubans and the more recent Nicaraguan arrivals. Despite the large number of Nicaraguans, the Cuban population remains firmly in control.

Challenging a candidate's residency is a popular tactic in Sweetwater politics, though not nearly as common as the anonymous complaint to state authorities or the unidentified smear. Eight years ago a mayoral candidate was disqualified after failing to prove he lived in the city. Similar allegations have hovered over other candidates this decade. At this time the State Attorney's Office is rumored to be pursuing no less than three investigations. (Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino confirms there are several open investigations in Sweetwater, but refused to offer specific details.)

Yet in small-town Sweetwater secrets are next to impossible to keep. Gossip was deemed so pernicious at city hall that Mayor Bango issued a memorandum in 1995 forbidding municipal employees from engaging in it. The mayor's directive stated: "All employees will refrain from initiating, repeating, or spreading any gossip, innuendo, rumors, and unfounded or ambiguous allegations about any fellow employee, supervisor, public official, or citizen."

But some conduct defies legislation. Today's scuttlebutt has it that one investigation is focused on misappropriation of funds at the Mildred and Claude Pepper Senior Center. (Grocery bills for food for the elderly are alleged to include dog food and kitty litter.) More often than not complaints made to the State Attorney's Office come from Mayor Bango, who admits talking to Centorino as often as once a week during election time. Most of the matters concern procedural issues that are not prosecutable and Centorino can do little but listen.

He is not the only one to be dragged into Sweetwater politics. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also regularly receives complaints about events in the city. A recent anonymous written tip alleges voter fraud taking shape this election. The letter suggests the Marono complaint is a clever diversionary tactic to obscure a much greater crime.

"The City of Sweetwater is involved in what will possibly be the biggest voter-fraud scandal in the history of [Miami-] Dade County. Mayor Gloria Bango has carefully orchestrated the act and positioned certain key players to carry out her misdeeds," the tipster reports dramatically. Showing a sense of hyperbole typical in Sweetwater the writer ends: "These days Sweetwater is equal to, if not worse, than any communist country!"

Bango, not averse to an occasional conspiracy theory herself (she usually begins, "I don't have proof but ..."), just shrugs and takes a drag of her cigarette. "After all the investigations we have had in the past four years, and we never got caught? We must be really good," she says sarcastically.

Complaining to state authorities is just one tactic. Periodically throughout the years city hall has been flooded with anonymous faxes, with satirical drawings of the mayor and council members, or just plain unsubstantiated accusations of wrongdoing. Then there are the newspapers that proliferate during campaigns to feed off free-spending candidates.

One such local paper is La Vanguardia, put out by Luis Pino, an avowed enemy of Bango. For only $250 Diaz got a back-cover advertisement, and a smaller one inside. In a recent issue, a Pino editorial blames Bango for raising taxes and the salaries of city employees. "Mr. Pino is saying the truth about matters," Diaz asserts. "If the truth hurts, let it hurt."

Pino is no stranger to the nasty turns Sweetwater politics can take. During a failed campaign for mayor in 1995, someone distributed an unsigned flyer detailing how in 1984 Pino had been charged for cocaine possession, gambling, and disorderly conduct. (Pino received a one-year probation on the cocaine charge; no action was taken on the others.) Pino, a tall man who can be ill-tempered, is still visibly upset by the flyer. "When I write something in my paper it is under my own name, not behind [my] back," he shouted when confronted recently with the circular. "That's what they use in this town. I am a 65-year-old guy. Don't try to do any Mickey Mouse [on me]. This is a fucking dirty business. They have to fight clean like a boxing fight. You tell this man who did this to come here himself."

La Politica Comica also took a bite. The free humorous newspaper has a wide distribution throughout the county and is published by former radio commentator Alberto Gonzalez. In the April 18 issue, Sweetwater plays prominently. A crudely doctored photograph of Bango and the council dressed as Twenties-style high rollers is printed on the cover. An inside article touches on yet another Sweetwater scandal, this time involving the city hall kitchen.

The piece, signed with a fictitious name, ends: "Let's vote so that peace reigns in Kosovo ... pardon, in Sweetwater and that the Mayor Milosevic ... pardon, the President Bango ... no, no, the President Milosevic ... well, whatever, that everything ends in peace in this 'small town, big hell.'"

The issue carries two advertisements of equal size, one for Diaz, and the other for dark-horse mayoral candidate Evaristo "Ever" Marina. The two men's campaign financial-disclosure forms reveal that Diaz paid Gonzalez $500 and Marina gave the publisher $1000.

Bango says she could take out an advertisement with Gonzalez but won't. "I am not going to pay for his silence," she says. "You are going to have to die talking to me -- that's integrity. You can call me old and fat but I have integrity."

For many in the city, though, it's the lawsuits that prompt the most disgust. Bango and Diaz first sparred in the courts in 1991 and their last case ended in 1997. The legal feud may have hit its lowest point in an incident now referred to as the "don't call me Pepe" motion.

In 1996 a battle broke out at city hall when Bango refused to appoint a finance director despite the demands of Diaz and other council members (chronicled in part in a New Times article titled "Summons Like It Hot," August 15, 1996). Bango insisted she had the right not to appoint the director and that she could do the job herself with the help of consultant Dennis Whitt. When Diaz refused to sign a paycheck for Whitt, Bango hauled the council president into court. Both sides hired lawyers and what followed was a series of suits and countersuits all paid for with tax dollars.

At one point Diaz and his lawyer Ralph Ventura took offense at the way in which Bango's nasal-voiced attorney Stephen Zukoff called the councilman "Pepe."

"It was disrespectful," Diaz claims. So Ventura filed a motion to force Zukoff to refrain from calling Diaz by the name under which he now campaigns. The motion was denied. After the two sides had spent $200,000 on attorneys' fees, Bango was forced to appoint a finance director.

The Bango-Diaz feud began in 1991 when the council appointed Diaz, a first-time officeholder, to fill a vacancy. The year before Bango had lost the election for a council seat by a slim margin. She challenged Diaz's appointment before a judge, insisting it was she who should be granted the seat by virtue of her near victory. A judge ruled in favor of Bango and Diaz was removed from office.

"I got appointed and two days after I was in court," Diaz remembers. "I had my welcome to politics and my welcome to the courts at the same time."

In 1993 both Diaz and Bango were elected to the council. The next year Bango succeeded then-Mayor Matilde Aguirre, who resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for the state senate. Bango won election in 1995, but relations between the two enemies did not improve.

"[Diaz] has spent my four years as mayor doing everything that he can to make me look bad," she asserts.

The 55-year-old Bango is dressed in comfortable clothing draped over her matronly figure. A wave of graying curly hair crowns her head. Fastened to the clipboard she carries in her hand is a list of all registered voters, which now totals 4134, in the city of Sweetwater. (Less than 2000 people are expected to vote in the election.)

All the candidates use the list for home-stop campaigning only possible in a small town. Not content simply to visit those who can vote, Bango has attempted to knock on every door in the city since January. This gives her the extra benefit of reaching Sweetwater's Nicaraguan population. Although there are only about 200 Nicaraguan voters, in the next few years that could very well change, and Sweetwater along with it. Under 1997 federal legislation many Nicaraguans who have lived in the United States since 1995 are now eligible for citizenship. When Bango encounters Nicaraguans as she walks the neighborhoods, she repeatedly urges them to apply for citizenship and when obtained, to register to vote.

Often she is accompanied by her loquacious 76-year-old mother Milagros Triana, partially blind from a degenerative eye disorder. Triana wears a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of dark wraparound sunglasses. She carries a blind person's cane that she uses to great effect. "Be careful with my mother. If she doesn't like you, she'll trip you," Bango jokes. The two maintain an easy banter that is highly entertaining. "I'm looking for a husband," the elderly woman cracks to a peer at one of the houses. "Oh, Mami, what will Dad say?" Bango comments in mock horror.

Despite her condition and advanced age, it is clear Triana relishes a good fight and is in part the source of much of her daughter's strength. She calls Diaz "a gorilla." She is an invaluable campaign weapon in a city where the electorate is largely elderly and Cuban. Her husband Jorge fled during Batista's rule, returned after the revolution, and wound up in a Castro prison, accused of plotting against the government. While her husband sat in jail, Triana made the difficult decision to send her three children to the United States in 1961. Her husband gained his freedom in 1965 and the couple fled the island the following year. The memory of that experience still brings tears to her eyes.

Bango arrived in the United States at the age of seventeen, and moved to Miami in 1968. She was a long-time civic activist, and in 1991 took the plunge into politics. After four bruising years as mayor, she insists she was ready to quit. Her husband had even requested she not run, as a birthday present to him. Yet he reversed course several months later in response to some Diaz-inspired outrage.

"They are so dumb," she says of her opponents. "I wasn't going to run again but they kept after me and I can't walk away from the fight."

It is precisely comments like that that incense Diaz.
"She wants respect but she doesn't respect anyone else," he complains.
On a typical day of campaigning, Jose "Pepe" Diaz gets home from work as a mortgage and insurance broker about 5:00 p.m. He says he has been in sales all his life. Diaz spends some time with the youngest of his three daughters, then grabs his voter list, kisses his wife and children, and leaves his modest middle-class home to sell himself to the voters.

Diaz is remarkably light on his feet for a man of considerable bulk. Wearing a nondescript tie only slightly loosened despite the heat, his hair combed back in a minipompadour, he appears to be much more conscious of his personal appearance than his opponents are.

His pitch is well practiced. Sweetwater, he says, is a diamond in the rough and he is the man to polish it. Most of the voters he visits listen briefly and then embark on long recitations of their own problems. He nods and tries to respond with encouraging words. Many seem receptive to the attention.

Despite the flap over "don't call me Pepe," he can be painfully self-deprecating. "I am Pepe Diaz. To make it easier, you may call me El Gordito [little fat man]," he tells one 80-year-old Cuban widow who sits in front of a wall full of collectible plates.

The 38-year-old Diaz has always had to prove himself. As one of the first Cuban kids in Sweetwater, he recalls constantly fighting with the "redneck" children. He yearns to be mayor and officially began campaigning in mid-September. "I want to have my daughters proud of me, that's what it is all about," he says.

For a while it looked as though the race for mayor belonged to Diaz and Bango. (Most pundits agree that another candidate, Jose Correa, has little chance of winning.) But minutes before the 5:00 p.m. March 26 deadline, Evaristo "Ever" Marina entered the fray. That came as a surprise because Marina had registered in March 1997 to run for the seat of State Sen. Robert Casas of Hialeah, who will vacate his position in the year 2000. As if spontaneity were a virtue in a public official, Marina likes to say: "I went to bed thinking about the state senate and woke up thinking about the mayorship." A pledge of support from Miriam Alonso also helped sway his thinking. Of course Alonso can't admit that, he confides.

Marina launched his quest for the state senate seat a scant six months after winning election to the Miami-Dade County Fire Board. Now he wants to be mayor of Sweetwater. The same day he filed his papers, he quit the fire board.

The 68-year-old Marina sits at a table in the Tamiami Trail eatery Wajiros. His blue eyes sparkle while he talks excitedly with a slight lisp. He is the man on the white horse, he insists. "I am not part of the problem," he says. "I am the solution."

His campaign platform is simple: If you vote for Marina, Bango and Diaz and the discord they bring to Sweetwater will disappear. All he has to do is force a run-off election. "Pepe or Gloria, it makes no difference," he says. "Whoever loses will go with me." The enemy of my enemy is my friend. "It has fallen into my hands," he crows.

Marina says his late entry will actually benefit him. He has planned to use all his money to win the election in the final weeks. For example he is sending the small newspaper he publishes, called El Nuevo Universal, to every registered voter in Sweetwater. Ten of his canvassers are knocking on doors, paying special attention to Diaz's neighborhood for the psychological impact, he says. He has a phone bank prepared. He also has plans for radio commercials, and T-shirts and hats.

But if the past is any indicator, Marina's victory might not be as guaranteed as he believes it is. Marina, a former Interior Ministry official in prerevolutionary Cuba before he came to the United States in 1959, has made campaigning a career. In the past 25 years he has reportedly run more than ten times for political office with only one success, the fire board. He has tried and failed to win positions as a school board member, Miami mayor, Sweetwater mayor, Sweetwater council member, and state representative for Little Havana, among other seats. In one case he was disqualified by the courts for failing the six-month residency requirement. As a mayoral candidate for Sweetwater in 1991, election officials disqualified him after discovering he had registered as a resident for a school board election in another part of the county only five months before.

Marina's school board candidacy made some sense, because much of his career here has been spent running a school he founded in 1968, the Miami Aerospace Academy. The military-style school, where students referred to him as "El General," closed in 1989 mired in scandal. In 1985 allegations that a group of boys had sexually abused some of their younger classmates surfaced in the local media. In 1987 a cadet was charged with the rape of a five-year-old girl. A year later state investigators probed allegedly poor living conditions at the institution. Finally Marina closed the school because of financial problems. "They could never prove anything," he asserts. "Why don't they say anything about the 13,000 students who passed through the school with military discipline?" When he talks about the past, Marina prefers to concentrate on his service as a president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce and as founder of a Lions Club chapter in Sweetwater.

"Trust me, I know what I am doing," he insists.
Marina's longevity and constant campaigning have made him a well-known figure in Sweetwater. He receives a friendly reception at two of Sweetwater's main gathering places, the Latin Cafeteria and Bakery and La Esquinita Habanera restaurants, which both front SW 107th Avenue on either side of SW Second Street.

But the mood among some of the electorate, who gather in front of the open windows of the restaurants drinking coffee, is one of irritation. Most of those queried say they won't vote. Cesar Urquiola's response is typical. In the eighteen years since he left Cuba, he has voted many times, but not anymore. "I won't vote again," he says. "[The politicians] don't work for the benefit of the community. None of them have the capacity to make things better."

At Beny's Barber shop around the corner, discussions of politics are not encouraged. "It brings problems," one of the haircutters explains. "The politicians are pigs and the people are tired of it."

There are many plausible reasons for the sorry state of politics in Sweetwater. Certainly a large part of the blame rests with the feud between Jose Diaz and Gloria Bango that has kept city hall a battleground for much of the Nineties.

A strong mayoral system coupled with a city attorney beholden to the council for his job hasn't helped things. Since city government has turned into Bango versus Diaz, it is the city attorney who must mediate. "It is the structure of the government," explains Gus Efthimiou, who was hired as city attorney in August 1993, fired three months later, rehired in January 1994, and then dismissed once again in November of this past year. He is now representing Marono. "The city attorney is appointed by the council and it states in the charter that he serves [at their] pleasure," Efthimiou says. "But sometimes he works for the mayor and the administration. It is like walking a tightrope."

Bango, who believes the council's principal preoccupation is to thwart her every move, often goes to the State Attorney's Office for legal opinions that would normally be resolved locally. "When [Centorino] tells me I have to rely on the city attorney, I say it is a moot issue," Bango declares.

The city's small size could also be a factor. Its constant struggle to find outside money for municipal services to avoid raising taxes on its primarily middle- to low-income residents is a continual font of problems, some believe.

And outside political machines share some blame. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, whom the council named the official "godmother" of Sweetwater, is said to exert considerable influence on city politics. Diaz and Bango's failure to name a street after Alonso doomed them from receiving the powerful commissioner's support, city wags say. "You can't insult the cook if you want to eat," Marina says.

The recent war between Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas has played a role in local politics, many believe. (Despite repeated calls neither man would comment for this article.) Like the superpowers in the cold war, the two political machines of the respective mayors fight their proxy battles in smaller municipalities. "They take their personal problems through all the cities to show their power," council candidate Mesa asserts.

Diaz supported Martinez's opponent Herman Echevarria (who was backed by Penelas) by knocking on doors for him in Hialeah during his unsuccessful bid to oust the mayor in 1997. Bango supported Martinez. Now it is believed the two are returning the favor.

"Raul told me, 'Bango you have been a terrific mayor, if you need me, call on me.' People in Hialeah helped me with money. They know the people who tried to oust Raul are working in this municipality," Bango says.

Diaz characterizes Penelas as a man with vision. "He has supported me through his people," confides the council president, who has received the maximum financial contributions of $500 from Penelas partisans Sergio Pino and Brian May.

Before relating the "no-comment" response from his boss, Penelas spokesman Juan Mendieta indicated he assumed the mayor would support Diaz. "They are good friends," he says. "Pepe is always over here."

Yet the problems in Sweetwater go deeper than Bango, Diaz, Martinez, and Penelas. Scandals have plagued Sweetwater almost since its incorporation. Indeed some say the city will never know peace until the midgets rumored to be buried beneath SW 109th Avenue are properly put to rest.

The story of Sweetwater's founding goes something like this. In 1939 a traveling troupe of twelve very small Russian circus performers were on their way to Florida's west coast to join a big top for the winter. They stopped in Sweetwater (some say because their car broke down) and delighted in the expanse of swamp, green farmland, and straight canals before rejoining the circus. Known variously as the Petrograd Star Company and the Royal Russian Midgets, the group returned shortly and decided to forgo their transitory ways. They built miniature houses and furniture for themselves. But their six-foot manager Joe Sanderlin had bigger plans than just a sunny retirement. Sanderlin and his 40-inch-tall wife Anna envisioned a midget city and tourist attraction. Midgets from all over the nation would come to live in Sweetwater and the curious would pay to see them.

In 1941 the troupe and thirteen other residents incorporated the town. The residents elected Sanderlin as mayor, but the midget mecca never materialized. The onset of World War II and gas rationing curtailed travel and interest withered. After a while the midgets left their tiny homes and returned to the nomadic life of circus performers.

But as legend has it, before the midgets decamped, two of them began an argument that ended in gunfire, and their untimely deaths. Without relatives to care for them, they were buried unceremoniously under what is now one of Sweetwater's main thoroughfares. Since that day the city fathers have fought more often than cooperated. According to urban myth, if tranquility is ever to reign in Sweetwater, the midgets must be exhumed, and given a proper burial.

It didn't take long for evil to go to work. By the early Fifties the sale of alcohol had become good business. In every place in Dade County but one, the bars closed at 1:00 a.m. on weekdays and 2:00 a.m. on weekends. In Sweetwater two liquor bars and one beer-and-wine joint stayed open until 5:00 a.m. A grand jury investigating the city at the time concluded that Sweetwater seemed to exist solely to bestow liquor licenses.

According to newspaper accounts of the day, it worked like this: Those in the county who wanted to drink late went to Sweetwater; on the way out of town the local police would often fine them for drunk driving, helping fill city coffers, or at least those of its employees. In 1955 the mayor found himself on trial, accused of taking a bribe to let off a drunk driver. In the end, though, a judge dismissed the case when someone observed the prosecution drinking with the key witnesses.

It wasn't entirely from the bars and drunk drivers that Sweetwater filled its coffers. The town also sold car inspection stickers. In fact one could purchase Sweetwater inspections stickers at 27 locations in the county, only one of which was actually in Sweetwater. In 1948 $28,000 of the $43,000 city budget came from inspection fees. In at least two inspection stations, the sticker cost three dollars. The charge stipulated by law was 75 cents.

By the Sixties the city's circus atmosphere seemed institutionalized. In 1965 the City of Sweetwater declared bankruptcy. Six years later the council tried to impeach the mayor. Two years after that the council attempted to rid itself of the existing police force by eliminating the budget for law enforcement, and voted to spend the money on a swimming pool. While council members debated the issue, someone vandalized their cars, which were parked outside the city hall and police station.

Toward the end of that decade the Cuban exiles fleeing Castro's regime discovered Sweetwater. In 1974 the first Cuban-American ran for city council and won a seat. A trickle of the whites who formed the majority of the city began to leave. In 1978 Jorge Valdez became the first Cuban-American mayor in the United States. The white flight turned to a torrent.

All sides expect the smears and legal maneuvering to intensify as the campaign winds down. "It is going to get bad," Diaz predicts. Three weeks prior to the election, absentee voting is starting to worry Mayor Gloria Bango. The election department has received requests for as many as 360 absentee ballots; if only 2000 people vote, they could easily decide the race. Entire families are voting absentee, Bango says, and hints that a city program to distribute food to low-income families is being used by her opponents to leverage ballots. "You have to remember that all of this is a game," she says. "There have been absentee ballot brokers in Sweetwater for a long time."

Jose Diaz says his camp is aware that absentee ballots will likely be an issue and has taken every precaution to comply with the law.

Several elections ago, at the request of the City of Sweetwater, the election department began to verify the authenticity of absentee-ballot requests. Still the department is largely unable to prevent fraud once the ballots have been mailed out, according to election supervisor David Leahy. (Criminal allegations of voter fraud are forwarded to the State Attorney's Office.) Of particular concern are the elderly people who are dependent on aid and can easily be intimidated. "I am sure it happens," Leahy says. "I don't know if it is happening in Sweetwater."

Ultimately the three councilmen not up for election will determine the validity of the absentee ballots. It being Sweetwater, everyone could end up back in court. "If it is a close race there is a potential for lawsuits," Leahy admits.

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