Firpo Garcia has one big advantage in his school board campaign. His name is Sol Stinson.

Executive director Rosalie Small, who attended the meeting, disputes this account. She says she doesn't remember Garcia taking an accusatory tone toward her or anyone else on her staff. “If anybody should have taken it that way, it would have been me, because I would have been the one who let the ball drop,” she points out.

After the meeting adjourned, these three dentists assert, council members began furiously phoning one another. The district's bylaws allow for the removal of any officer by a council vote. The anti-Firpo forces realized they had a majority, called Garcia, and presented their terms: resign or be sacked. Garcia submitted his resignation letter to the society on April 3, 2000.

Garcia says he received no such phone call, nor had he heard anything about a movement to kick him out of office. Although he brought up concerns about the winter meeting, he accused no one of sabotage. He pins the story of the supposed coup against him on his “detractors” within the organization. Current president Sabates says both the account of Garcia's paranoid screed, and the tale of the attempted ouster of Garcia, are simply not true. He describes those dentists who told New Times this story as “kind of cowardly.”

G. Holmes Braddock's retirement seems to clear the way for Garcia
Steve Satterwhite
G. Holmes Braddock's retirement seems to clear the way for Garcia

“It can be very rough,” Garcia says of the imbroglio. “Anytime you take on a leadership position, there are those that agree with you, and those that don't.”

If anyone in the District 7 race fits the description of school system insider, it's not Garcia. It's Cobo. After all Braddock helped convince him to run.

Cobo is a short, rotund, bespectacled character with a realtor pin on the lapel of his suit coat and contribution envelopes stuffed in his coat pockets. He was born in Key West in 1939 and raised in Miami. His parents were of Cuban and Spanish descent, but Cobo grew up speaking English almost exclusively, becoming fluent in Spanish only later in life.

His local political career began in 1968, when he served as an aide to Miami City Commissioner David Kennedy. He remained with Kennedy when the latter became mayor, and stayed on at city hall when Maurice Ferre succeeded Kennedy. Cobo worked for Ferre until 1978, when he got his real estate license and turned to the private sector for his livelihood. He has worked in some capacity (usually unpaid) for at least one candidate in every election year since. Only once, though, has he joined the public payroll, by serving as an aide to Dade County commissioner Jorge Valdes for six months in the early Eighties.

That's not to say he hasn't taken his share of cracks at elected office. He ran for Miami City Commission in both 1979 and 1981, then took a shot at the Dade clerk of courts job in 1990. In 1996 he declared his candidacy for a community council race, then tried to pull out. But it was too late; his name appeared on the ballot and the result was the same as every other election in which he's run. He lost. He worked as a paid consultant on several campaigns, including Betsy Kaplan's successful run for the school board in 1988. He handled Braddock's 1992 and 1996 runs as well.

This time around Cobo will have to beat not only Garcia but his own reputation. “Frank Cobo is an insider's insider, and he would be a disaster as a school board member,” moans one local political observer. “He's a glad-hander with nothing to offer, a small-time dealmaker with an emphasis on the small.”

Cobo shrugs off such opinions. He's also unconcerned that Garcia has received the UTD seal of approval. “There's five board members sitting there right now who did not receive the union endorsement the first time they ran,” Cobo declares gamely.

His late entry into the race could be his greatest obstacle, not only in fundraising but in meeting potential voters. Garcia has been out walking the district since he declared his candidacy in January 1999, trudging purposefully door-to-door with his red-white-and-blue campaign T-shirts and a fluent Spanish he didn't have to learn in school.

Margaret Slama gathered some 1600 signatures on her petition. Campaign consultant Irene Secada warns against counting Slama out. “She's a woman with two kids in a race against two men who have no kids,” she says.

The district's demographics favor a bilingual candidate, which at least partially explains Garcia's solid showing against Braddock in 1996. At the time the boundaries were drawn, District 7, which stretches from West Kendall to the Redland to parts of Homestead, was 46 percent non-Hispanic white, 45 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent black. Political consultant Ric Sisser, who says he'll probably be helping Garcia in the race, notes the district has become more Hispanic and more Republican since 1996 -- factors likely to help Garcia.

While he's grateful for the financial support he's received from dentists and educators, Garcia seems especially proud of his pavement-pounding, bragging that he's visited more than 13,000 homes. He estimates that he only knocked on about 5000 doors in the 1996 campaign. This time he's determined to both toil and spend more than his opponents.

“It's hard work, man, hard work,” he sighs. “I still feel like I'm the underdog.”

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