By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Between bites of eggs and bacon and sips of café con leche at a La Carreta restaurant in Kendall, Firpo H. Garcia answers the obvious question: Why does a 43-year-old dentist with no children want to join the Miami-Dade County School Board?
“You don't have to be a parent to be a school board member; you do have to be civic minded,” Garcia says, nodding for emphasis. He mentions the young patients in his Hialeah-based dental practice, as well as his nieces and nephews in the public school system.
Clad in a white dress shirt and an iridescent green tie, he hunches over his breakfast and lists the steps he's taken toward a September 5 victory: joining the Dade County Council Parent Teacher Association/Parent Teacher Student Association (PTA/PTSA) and serving as treasurer; attending nearly every school board meeting for the past five years; and volunteering at Kendall-area schools. He also has served on school board committees. All this time he's kept his gentle brown eyes on the prize. “I've been working toward being a school board member, learning the pros and cons of the office, for the past five years,” he says.
Garcia doesn't cut a very imposing figure. He's below average height, with a bit of a paunch around the middle. His expressions and gestures can be abrupt and jerky, and he breaks into a sweat easily. But if anything about him embodies his campaign, it's his walk: He takes short steps, he's not very graceful, and he has a slight forward lean as he plods along. He's dogged, determined. It might not be pretty, but he reaches his destination.
He failed in his first foray into public life, an attempt to unseat board member G. Holmes Braddock in 1996. Braddock's announcement this past December that he would retire as the representative from District 7, a vast swath of land that includes much of Kendall and Cutler Ridge, not only brightened Garcia's prospects, it also put into play a crucial seat on the nine-member governing body. Presently none of the four incumbents up for re-election this year -- Robert Ingram, Michael Krop, Demetrio Perez, or Betsy Kaplan -- appears likely to face serious opposition.
The winner of the District 7 contest could alter board political dynamics, especially when it comes to often-contentious matters such as approving the $3.8 billion budget, electing a chairperson, or selecting a new superintendent. Sometimes-embattled and always-befuddled superintendent Roger Cuevas's four-year stint already has exceeded the average professional life span of top administrators at large urban school districts.
Having declared his candidacy in January 1999, Garcia had, as of the last reporting date of March 31, amassed a $26,000 head start on his opponents: PTA mom Margaret Slama and realtor (and political consultant) Frank J. Cobo. Garcia estimates that, at press time, his campaign fund has grown to roughly $50,000, and that he expects to raise $100,000 before election day on September 5. (In 1996 he raised $54,000 to Braddock's $66,000.) Slama, who got on the ballot through a petition drive rather than paying the $1400 qualifying fee, is running a grassroots campaign that will likely lag far behind her competitors. The greater threat to Garcia's candidacy is probably Cobo, who, through his many political and business contacts, figures to make up at least some of the financial deficit rather quickly.
But Garcia has an ace in the hole: school board member Solomon C. Stinson. On paper it appears Stinson has contributed only $300 to Garcia's campaign coffers. But Garcia's campaign contribution forms teem with small donations from public school teachers and administrators, many of whom live and work outside District 7. As of March 31, more than 140 of his contributors were employees of the public school system he endeavors to govern.
Garcia declares this support stems from the respect he has earned during five years as a candidate/gadfly. His opponent Cobo has an alternative explanation: that Stinson, through his allies in the school leadership, has ordered (or at least encouraged) administrators to contribute to Garcia's campaign and to raise money for him from their subordinates.
Indeed, according to several current and former school district employees who declined to be named, Stinson and board candidates he favors have employed this technique in the past three election seasons (1996, 1998, 2000). Some describe the approach as noncoercive, taking place off school property before or after working hours -- which is legal. Others grumble about arm-twisting from superiors, sometimes during the workday. That would be illegal.
Garcia replies that neither he nor anyone associated with his campaign is hitting up teachers and administrators at work. Stinson, who was on vacation at press time, did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
The list of teachers buying tickets to Garcia's fundraisers is likely to increase. In mid-May the powerful United Teachers of Dade (UTD) union screened the District 7 candidates, then endorsed Garcia. According to the union, this benediction stems from Garcia's drive, intelligence, and openness to new ideas.
Several people contacted for this story, including quite a few of Garcia's colleagues in dentistry, agree with the union's assessment: Firpo is the man. But others worry that Garcia has changed his mind too often, notably on the issue of school vouchers. Even some dentists question his suitability for public office, pointing to his sometimes-paranoid actions as a member of the local dental association's governing body.
Garcia's onetime adversary certainly doesn't think the newcomer is packing the gear for the job. “To me he's a real lightweight as an individual,” says Braddock. “He's got no original thoughts. He's just going to go with the flow and play to the audience.”
Yet with less than two months before the September 5 election, Garcia is the front-runner, at least in terms of fundraising. A retracing of how he got there provides a glimpse of the strange road some aspirants to the school board must travel.
Felix and Julia Garcia moved to Miami from Camagüey, Cuba, in the Forties. Their son Firpo Howard, was born January 16, 1957, during a family visit to the island. Young Firpo, named after a famous Argentine boxer of the 1920s, Luis Firpo, graduated from Coral Park Senior High School and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Miami in 1979. He was granted one doctorate in dental medicine from la Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico in 1983, and a second doctorate in dental surgery from the University of Southern California in 1986. The next year he returned to Miami to establish his Bird Road general dentistry practice in 1987. (In 1999 he moved his office to Hialeah.)
Though he did some volunteer work during the next few years, joining groups such as the Elks, the United Way, and the Coral Park High booster club, he says he first became interested in school board politics back in 1994, when parents in his practice began complaining to him about Braddock. “People would call [Braddock's] office, and he would never return their calls,” Garcia comments. “He was abrasive. Some people went down there and saw his [now-former] board aide doing needlepoint.”
In 1996 Garcia thought it was time to do something. That year the number of school board seats was expanded from seven to nine, and for the first time, members were elected from districts rather than countywide. Garcia leaped into the fray, emerging from a crowded Republican primary to take on Braddock. The irascible incumbent won the general election with 56 percent of the vote to Garcia's 44 percent.
Today Garcia views the 1996 race as a valuable learning experience, particularly in regard to political hardball. He remembers one negative campaign piece, a mailer comparing Braddock's long record of service to Garcia's relative inexperience. (Braddock became a school board member in 1962, before Garcia entered the first grade.)
Then there was the “whisper campaign,” alleging that Garcia's ex-wife, Roddess Ekberg, had accused him of beating her. In fact Ekberg did make such an allegation, but, as an October 27, 1996, Miami Herald article detailed, there was a lot more to the story.
In fact there's a thick, three-ring binder's worth of documents, which Garcia reviewed with New Times at the second-story Kendall townhouse where he and his mother live. It goes like this: In late 1992 Garcia met Ekberg at a dental conference in Orlando. They married that December and divorced the next spring. Only after the breakup did Ekberg claim Garcia struck her. Police and court records, which Garcia gathered both on his own and with the help of a private investigator, show Ekberg, under several aliases, was a con artist, a grifter who had used various schemes to prey upon dentists and other professionals in Florida and elsewhere. Metro-Dade Police investigated Ekberg's accusations against Garcia and found her to be not entirely credible. Garcia was cleared. Garcia says he kept track of some of her subsequent hustles, but he thinks she left the state sometime shortly after November 1993. He says he has no idea what has become of her.
Leafing through the Ekberg file with a reporter makes him downright testy. “It's not a crime to be in love,” he gripes. “Who's the victim here? I'm the victim. Seven years down the road, here I am trying to do the right thing for the community, and here you are asking about this.”
The fact that this story surfaced in 1996, Garcia says, was entirely owing to Braddock's dirty tricks. Although he's running against the engineer of that machine, Frank Cobo, Garcia says he's not worried about further mudslinging. “They tried to weaken my candidacy [in 1996] by dropping off a packet [about Ekberg's charges] at the Herald, and I think [New Times] got a packet, too,” he says, “But it didn't make any difference.
“I'm sure he's going to use it in this election,” Garcia asserts. “He's from the old school of politics, where they try to weaken you however possible.”
For his part Cobo says neither he nor Braddock did any dirty campaigning. They in fact instructed now-deceased political consultant Phil Hamersmith and teachers union leaders not to use material related to Ekberg.
One thing is clear: Garcia has observed much board debate during the past four years. Board member Manty Sabates Morse remembers his regular meeting attendance with a measure of amusement. “He'd sit in the same chair every time, so whenever the [WLRN-TV (Channel 17)] camera switched to a speaker at the podium, you'd see him there [in the background],” she chortles, noting that several other school board gadflies have long used this seating strategy. “When we changed the way the stage is set up, it was funny watching him try different seats the first few times, trying to figure out where he could sit to be seen.
“But I can't tell you where he stands on any issue,” Morse adds, more soberly. “I've never seen him come up and say, “This is how I feel.'” Morse also confesses she has a hard time figuring out Garcia's political philosophy. Although he is a Republican, she says his public pronouncements are more consistent with the PTA or UTD point of view -- which often contradicts conservative ideology.
Cobo likes to say his opponent's first name should not be “Firpo” but “Flippo,” because of his tendency to flip-flop his position on crucial issues. No area illustrates this phenomenon better than that of vouchers. In 1996 Republicans often championed a system that would, among other things, subsidize private school tuition for students attending poorly rated public schools. Back then Garcia supported vouchers. Now, perhaps in an effort to curry favor with the UTD, he has reversed his position.
He says political expediency had nothing to do with his change of heart. “When [vouchers] first came out, they were experimental,” Garcia says. “There had been little research, but they sounded good. Has it worked? No. If you take a child from a failing school and give him the choice of going to another school, you'll probably deplete the failing school down to empty.”
What Cobo tries to spin as political malleability, others see as political maturity. “To his credit he's spent the last four years learning about the school district, and he's been a good student,” says Annette Katz, a UTD spokeswoman. “He spent a lot of time speaking with us, and we got to know who he really is and what he stands for.”
Even before their union officially backed Garcia, teachers and administrators were contributing to the dentist's campaign in droves. How come? “You'll find out it's called respect,” Garcia declares, his gaze steady, his upper lip sweating. “I've earned it. I was an unknown entity [in 1996], and people didn't take me seriously. But by having a work ethic and showing my true intentions, I earned people's respect. Having school board members and administrators contribute to my campaign shows that I've earned respect.
“I'm sure they're encouraging their friends, as well,” he adds. “With Dr. Stinson, the fact that he contributes to my campaign is a statement in itself, and I'm sure he has talked to other people about my campaign.”
Few of Garcia's contributors replied to calls from New Times about their contributions, but his campaign forms speak volumes. Garcia has received at least $8800 in donations from no fewer than 140 school employees, mostly in small increments. As of March 31, he had received $75 from associate superintendent Rose Barefield-Cox, $75 from deputy superintendent John Johnson II, $25 from deputy superintendent Carol Cortes, $25 from assistant superintendent Joyce Annunziata, $25 from now-retired assistant superintendent Carrie Mickey, and $25 from district director Ruby Johnson. New public information officer Alberto Carvalho gave $25. From the personnel office alone, he's raked in $25 from deputy superintendent Nelson Diaz, $25 from assistant superintendent Gwendolyn Jennings-Kidney, $25 from assistant superintendent Patricia Parham, and $50 from administrative director Vera Hirsh.
Of this group only Carvalho and Cortes would comment for the record. Carvalho says he met Garcia at “political events over the years,” emphasizing that he gave the candidate money as a “private citizen,” and not as a school board employee. Cortes says she first met Garcia through the PTA, adding, “I believe he really cares about the school system and the children.” She says she bought a $25 ticket to one of Garcia's fundraisers, though she can't recall where or when she bought the ticket, or whether or not she attended. During an election year, “I can't remember one [fundraiser] from the other,” she chuckles.
Add to these givers a parade of principals and a torrent of teachers giving similarly modest amounts (largely through ticket purchases), top them off with $500 chunks here and there from school district vendors and potential vendors, sprinkle in a handful of $100 shots from dentists, and you've got a substantial early lead for the driven dentist from West Kendall.
School district employees have a right to participate in the political process, but when politicking and authority mix, the potential for abuse is obvious. Consider the following example: One school principal, who asked not to be named, confirms receiving an invitation to a fundraiser for Firpo Garcia, by phone, during working hours, from Region 5 superintendent Neyda Navarro. The event took place at Navarro's home. Though nothing about the substance of the call was intimidating, being invited to an event at the home of one's immediate superior sure sounds like an offer you can't refuse.
Garcia says he became friends with Navarro while he was PTA treasurer. “She was gracious enough to hold a fundraiser for me,” he allows. Navarro did not return phone calls seeking comment.
According to Florida law, no state employee can campaign for anyone while on the job. Nor can officials bully subordinates into supporting a candidate. In a June 13 memorandum, just in time for this year's election season, deputy superintendent of schools Henry Fraind provided administrators with a friendly reminder to employees of “their rights and the limitations imposed by state law and school board rules.”
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.
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.”
“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.”