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For those of us innocents who live outside the magical realm of viejito politics, the continuing success of school board member Demetrio Perez, Jr., is a thing of wonder. Despite nearly two decades of conduct that sensible people have found appalling, and despite his recent arrest at Miami International Airport for blithely passing two loaded handguns through a security checkpoint, Perez still shines in the eyes of his admiring constituents, los viejitos, those adorable senior citizens.
In the very special universe that is viejito politics, elderly Latin immigrants -- mostly unskilled in English, mostly poor, mostly Cuban -- willfully submit themselves to cynical manipulation by egomaniacal demagogues like Perez. Regardless of the administrative jurisdiction (city, county, state, school board), this sadomasochistic form of governing has become a hallmark of Miami political life. And while Perez reigns as its current master, others have exhibited a diabolical talent for the craft, Miriam Alonso, Tomas Regalado, Humberto Hernandez, and Alberto Gutman among them. When it comes to longevity, though, no one can hold an eerily flickering candle to Perez the Wizard.
As far back as the early Eighties, when he served on the Miami City Commission, he displayed a keen appreciation for the difference between enlightened leadership and craven pandering. And so it became commonplace to see the commission chambers packed with elderly Perez supporters who'd been bused there (at Perez's expense, of course) with the purpose of intimidating his fellow commissioners into supporting one or another of his harebrained schemes. Those included introducing a resolution to have the city honor convicted terrorist Orlando Bosch, handing the violently anti-Castro group Alpha 66 a taxpayer gift of $10,000, and demanding that director Brian De Palma rewrite the script of Scarface, then being filmed in Miami, to soften its harsh portrayal of Cuban immigrants of the Mariel-boatlift era. (This hysterical episode, laughable as it seems today, ended up costing the local economy an estimated ten million dollars in revenue when an outraged De Palma told Perez to fuck off, rounded up Al Pacino and the crew, and took the project to L.A.)
In 1985, facing a strong challenge from political newcomer Rosario Kennedy, Perez allegedly sought to fatten his campaign coffers by selling his commission vote. At issue was the appointment of a new city manager. Perez's asking price: $50,000 for his vote in favor of Sergio Pereira. Under oath six years later at a corruption trial, Republican Party fundraiser and big-time developer Camilo Padreda testified that he and GOP activist (now state chairman) Al Cardenas met with Perez to discuss the vote-for-cash plot. Cardenas reportedly went so far as to deposit the money in an escrow account, though payment proved unnecessary when Pereira won the manager's job without need of Perez's vote. Not surprisingly, Perez denied that anything of the sort transpired.
Kennedy trounced him at the polls, also not surprising in light of the fact that his campaign had been labeled "sleaziest of the season" by the Dade Fair Campaign Practices Committee for its blatantly racist tenor. (Among other endearing utterances, Perez huffed that his campaign didn't have enough money to "buy the black vote.")
But those who thought they'd pierced Perez's wicked heart with a stake clearly underestimated his powers. Eleven long years later, in a comeback that defied common sense, he was elected to the school board, even though, as owner of the Lincoln-Martí chain of private schools, he wore his disdain for public education as a badge of honor.
Perez, like Richard Nixon, apparently used his brooding time out of the limelight to gather strength, for no sooner had he declared victory than he flung open his sorcerer's cape and conjured busloads of "Demetrio!" fanatics at every turn. All those visits to senior centers and homes for the aged had paid off again.
The school board's new political warlock wasted no time reverting to his tried-and-true tactics. He began soaking the district for the cost of printing and mailing flyers announcing "town meetings" and other transparently political events. He argued that the job of district superintendent -- a position he covets -- should be elective, that students be forced to rise whenever an adult enters their classroom, that the National Guard provide school security, and that uniforms be mandatory at all schools. As a "safety measure" he wanted every student at every school to squeeze, single-file, through a human cattle chute lined with metal detectors and x-ray machines. Suspension as a form of punishment was ineffective, he argued, and should be replaced with hard labor.
This fixation on rigidity and control did not apply to himself, however. He felt free, for example, to flout the law that required him to live in the district from which he was elected. A plush Brickell Avenue condo may have been his permanent home, but as revealed by New Timesin a June 1997 article, Perez's declared residence was a rented room in a modest house near the Orange Bowl (charmingly depicted in the accompanying photo). "I can change my residence like I change my watch," he smirked. "I move from one to another. It doesn't make any difference."