By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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In 1968 Demetrio Sr. founded a new private school in the United States, one that combined the names of the most patriotic figures he could think of from American and Cuban history, respectively. After completing his own education, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Thomas University, Demetrio Jr. joined the family business.
He also founded Municipality of Matanzas in Exile, as well as an association of Cuban municipality- and neighborhood-in-exile groups. He was among the first Cuban-American politicians to mobilize his community's post-Mariel clout, getting elected to the Miami City Commission mostly on the strength of his anti-Castro credentials.
But back in 1981, city commissioners were elected at-large. Perez never appealed much to black or Anglo voters, and by 1985, many in Miami, even within the Cuban community, had begun to view him as something of a buffoon. He spearheaded the charge to prevent Brian De Palma from filming 1983's Scarface on location in Miami, finding the picture to be so anti-Cuban as to merit prior restraint. In 1983 he proposed the city declare a day honoring Cuban exile Juan Felipe de la Cruz, who was accidentally killed while assembling a bomb.
And in 1985, an election year, he got pummeled for a particularly embarrassing taxpayer-subsidized junket to Paris to inspect public toilets. His opponents, notably Rosario Kennedy and Manolo Reyes, had plenty of ammunition against him. Perez responded by running one of the decade's sleaziest campaigns. Kennedy was his favorite target: He accused her of being a communist sympathizer and called her a front for the "infamous corruption" of her husband, former Miami Mayor David Kennedy. (He had been indicted and removed from office, accused of bribing a judge, but the courts threw out the charge and he was reinstated as mayor.)
Kennedy beat him badly. The Herald at the time ripped Perez's "one-note" politics, and blasted his "gutter-level" tactics in the campaign against Kennedy. A 1985 Herald editorial wrote him this political epitaph: "Voters bade him a deserved good riddance."
At that time the Herald had every reason to believe Perez was gone for good. A guy who so blatantly represents government of the Cubans, by the Cubans, for the Cubans, had little hope of being elected county- or even city-wide. The establishment of single-member districts, first in the county government, then in the school board, offered renewed hope to Perez. His resounding victory in 1996 was achieved through old-school Havana-ward-politics campaigning, complete with flag-waving busloads of senior citizens.
Despite the fact that three other Cuban-American Republicans -- Renier Diaz de la Portilla, Perla Tabares Hantman, and Manty Sabates Morse -- also swept on to a school board previously dominated by white-Anglo Democrats, it was Perez the old hands in the district found the most disconcerting.
"Guys like him are anathema to the Anglo community in Aventura, Perrine, Pinecrest, but his message doesn't have to play in Pinecrest," comments Maurice Ferre. "He really is sort of the archetypal exile politician."
Not only that, Ferre continues, the 55-year-old Perez actually has more in common, ideologically and in his manner, with the previous generation of exile leadership. "Demetrio Perez speaks a grammatically perfect Spanish," Ferre says. "He's very formal. When you talk to him, it's like listening to someone out of the last century in Cuba. You know, I've known him for 30 years. We served together at the City of Miami, and he still addresses me in the usted form," he says. "I've told him he doesn't have to do that, but he still has never spoken to me except in the formal manner."
Perez has had his radio show, Educación y Comunidad (Education and Community), on Radio Mambí for ten years. At Mambí nothing goes on the air without the say-so of Armando Perez-Roura. The 72-year old commentator's booming baritone is the public voice of the previous generation of exile leadership Ferre refers to; Demetrio Perez's views on local, national, and international politics don't deviate far from those of Perez-Roura.
"His close relationship with Perez-Roura and Radio Mambí should be of concern to any reasonable citizen," says Francisco Aruca, who constantly criticizes the Cuban-American right wing on his own English- and Spanish-language radio shows. "Anyone who listens to Radio Mambí's narrow-mindedness and aggressiveness would think that this is the last kind of mentality we would like to have influencing someone who is supposed to be an educator.
"Perez knows he depends upon the type of Cuban who is influenced by Radio Mambí, so he gets a show on Mambí," Aruca says. "It's a mutual admiration society, and he gets to raise his profile in that community."
As of July 1998, Demetrio Perez was the second-wealthiest member of the Miami-Dade County School Board. At $3,198,175, his net worth ranked second behind that of Marta Perez (no relation), who, between her husband's airline service business and their real estate holdings, weighed in at $3,315,000.
Lincoln-Martí Schools is Perez's primary business. County records show that Perez and/or Lincoln-Martí Schools own no fewer than 38 properties, most of which serve as campuses for the 17 schools. His other holdings include a four-unit, two-story apartment building at 2320 SW Ninth St., where, beginning in the mid-Eighties, Migdalia Quintana was a tenant.