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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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The irony is galling, says one anonymous administrator, who terms this year's fundraising within the district “frantic.” The main beneficiary: Firpo Garcia. “They'll call you at work, at home. You can be in the toilet, and they'll hit you with the damn ticket,” the administrator grouses. “And I don't say no. I don't want to find out what happens if you do [say no].”
This administrator says the chief proponent of Firpomania has been Henry Fraind -- through intermediaries, of course. Why? “It's very simple: Firpo can become a swing vote on the board for whatever comes down the pike,” the administrator says. (Fraind was on vacation at press time. Through one of his assistants, Fraind responded that he is not supporting candidates for school board or any other office.) One high-ranking district official points out that Fraind and Solomon Stinson are political allies; thus Fraind's campaigning for Garcia is consistent with Stinson's support for the dentist. “Intimidation is still being practiced in this system,” the official says.
One Stinson ally got caught illegally campaigning for Stinson himself in 1995. Eddie Pearson, now a deputy superintendent, once asked a gathering of principals at a school to contribute to Stinson's 1996 campaign. Pearson paid a $500 fine.
Still, Stinson's own campaign finance reports, and those of his allies (notably present board member Robert Ingram and former board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla), have been packed with small donations from hundreds of teachers and administrators. “I haven't gotten a call [asking for a contribution to] Firpo yet, but I sure as hell did for Renier [in 1998],” one current administrator offers. The administrator adds that he and many others view a $25 or $50 donation to a Stinson-backed campaign as “cheap job insurance.”
“These guys don't have any choice,” says one former administrator in the Miami-Dade system. “Every principal in every region gets the calls about candidates. Then they make it very clear to their assistant principals what they need to do. Principals do it to keep people off their back, assistant principals do it hoping to get a promotion. So maybe they go to the fundraiser and maybe they don't, but they give their $25.”
This ex-administrator and half a dozen other sources contacted for this story confirm that school board candidates have raised money through the chain of command. Although Stinson certainly didn't invent the practice, “now it's become very blatant,” the ex-administrator says. “Administrators are experiencing outright strong-arm stuff.”
Garcia stresses that no one is being pressured to give him money and bristles at the implication that Stinson would be able to control his vote by helping his campaign. “I'm not a rubber stamp. I'm my own man,” Garcia snaps. “I'm nobody's boy.”
Long before Garcia became a crack fundraiser, he built a reputation as one of the most dynamic, if controversial figures in dental politics. His conduct in this arena has won him both friends and enemies in dentistry and offers a hint of how he might carry himself as a school board member.
When Garcia returned to South Florida after completing his schooling in California, he joined three professional associations: the American Dental Association, the Florida Dental Association, and the East Coast District Dental Society, which includes dentists, oral surgeons, and orthodontists from South Broward and Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
It didn't take long for Garcia to notice something amiss. “A lot of young members felt they were not being represented,” he says. “There was a good-ol'-boy syndrome in the society.” Garcia and his compatriots -- mostly young Cuban Americans and based in west Miami-Dade -- lobbied hard for change. “We took the leadership to task,” he remembers. The district at the time contained five “affiliates,” regional groupings of dentists within the district. Garcia and his group gathered enough dentists to form their own affiliate in west Dade.
In June 1996 members of the west Dade affiliate selected Garcia as their representative. Four years later he became the society's president-elect. “He did a fantastic job,” says Dr. Cesar Sabates, president of the dental society. Garcia was due to become president this past June, but in April he resigned “due to the responsibilities of the campaign for the school board,” he says.
Three dentists who declined to be named claim that wasn't the real reason he bailed out. Had he not resigned as president-elect, they say, his fellow executive council members would have impeached him. The anti-Firpo movement was precipitated by a March 22 executive council meeting where, these dentists allege, Garcia put on a paranoid performance worthy of Joe Carollo -- or Joe McCarthy. “Dr. Garcia became very disruptive, accusing East Coast staff of purposely sabotaging our annual winter meeting,” one of these anonymous dentists says. “He said, “I have sources, I can't tell you who, telling me that certain staff members have been canceling speakers, not signing up speakers, missing deadlines, trying to sabotage my meeting.'”
According to those same three dentists, all of whom were present, some members challenged Garcia to produce proof. He refused to reveal his sources, they say. Two of these dentists note council members had grown accustomed to Garcia's rants, especially to accusations the organization's leadership was anti-Hispanic.