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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Those who know Demetrio Perez say they rarely see the man, publicly or privately, without a suit and tie. Whatever else his critics and his supporters say about him, no one can deny the Miami-Dade County School Board member and private school kingpin is a snappy dresser.
Still, he will drop the semiformal attire for a special occasion, such as the April 29 rally on SW Eighth Street in Little Havana to protest the federal government's forcible removal of Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle's home. As the massive crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, milled about, waved Cuban and other flags, and brandished anti-Castro, anti-Clinton, and anti-Reno placards, many of them were treated to an unusual sight: Demetrio Perez, his bald, perpetually ruddy pate shining in the sun, walking down Calle Ocho in a T-shirt.
It wasn't just any T-shirt. On the front it bore the red, white, and blue shield (based upon the Cuban flag) of Lincoln-Martí Schools, the chain of bilingual private schools founded by Perez's father in 1968. Below the shield were emblazoned the words, «Elian, niño milagro, miracle child.» On the back was a silkscreen black-and-white photo of Elian himself wearing the uniform of Lincoln-Martí Schools, which he attended for much of his brief sojourn in Miami.
And Perez was not alone. With the assistance of Lincoln-Martí faculty, he shepherded a phalanx of Elian's classmates through the parade. Each of the adorable little tykes was wearing the «niño milagro» T-shirt, and they carried a banner declaring Lincoln-Martí Schools to be «la escuela de Elian.»
These images of Perez and the children smiling and waving were featured prominently in the pages of Libre, the free weekly newspaper published by Perez. Most of that week's issue was devoted to the rally, including photos of the keynote speaker, Armando Perez-Roura of Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), perhaps the most powerful opinion-maker of el exilio's old guard. Of course Perez-Roura also has a weekly column on the inside front page of Libre. And of course Demetrio Perez also has a daily talk show on Mambí. Thus nearly everyone whose opinion matters to Perez will know who was the educational benefactor of little Elian.
«He does things sometimes that are offensive to the American mainstream, because his paradigm is not American, it's Cuban,» says Maurice Ferre, who served as mayor of the City of Miami while Perez was a city commissioner in the Eighties, and who also considers himself a friend. «He's like a ward politician in Havana from the Thirties or Forties. He's a man out of time and out of place, in the wrong country and the wrong century.»
As Elian Gonzalez continues to be the 50-pound gorilla dominating public discourse in this election year, no sitting politician or candidate has lost so little and gained so much from the niño milagro's presence as has Demetrio Armando Perez, Jr. During his first three and a half years on the school board, he has striven to remake the public schools in the image of his own chain of private schools, which, thanks to Perez's guidance and authorship of a textbook, are steeped not only in Falwellesque «family values,» but in explicit anti-communist ideology. He pushes for uniforms, supports drug testing, agitates for school prayer, tries to beef up school security. All are measures that endear him to his overwhelmingly Hispanic Republican constituency.
His October arrest for trying to bring two loaded pistols into an airplane at Miami International Airport was ironic on many levels. On the one hand, the fact that he was armed (and carrying his concealed-weapons permit) fits in nicely with the Charlton Heston wing of his party of choice. On the other, the fact that the guy trying to legislate security in schools runs afoul of the sort of checkpoint he wants to institute is just comical. And once again he's given the English-language media (and some in the Spanish-language media as well) an opportunity to deride him as a potentially dangerous clown.
Of all the negative press he's received over the years, the fallout from the gun-toting incident seems to have shaken his usual unflappability. In recent months his fellow board members have noticed a deafening silence from his seat on the dais. Almost without fail at each monthly school board meeting during his tenure, Perez would read one lengthy, prepared speech on an issue of particular interest to him, be it closing campuses during lunchtime, supporting school uniforms, or pushing for mandatory drug testing. G. Holmes Braddock, a school board member since 1962 who will not be running for re-election this fall, wryly refers to these proclamations as «epistles.» He wonders why several recent meetings have been epistle-free.
Perez himself has offered no explanation. He did not return numerous phone calls from New Times to both his school board office and the offices of Lincoln-Martí Schools, seeking comment for this story. It could be he's been preoccupied with his legal troubles. One of his former tenants in a Little Havana apartment building he owns is suing him for overcharging rent, collecting up to $2800 more from her than he should have under the county government's subsidized-housing program.