Donkey Demise

Miami-Dade's Democratic Party is a shambles. Blame Joe Geller, candidate and chairman.

Schroh's tale of alienation is echoed by other area Democratic club members, both Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanic. One of the principal roles of the DEC is to energize the grassroots, yet the presidents who represent hundreds of hard-core Democrats talk of feeling estranged from their own party. For some the Elian Gonzalez experience and the DEC's refusal to support the decision of a Democratic administration demonstrate just how powerless they are.

The Dominican club was formed in May 1999 in part to challenge a party that its members believe only concerns itself with Cuban Americans. “They don't care about other nationalities,” Schroh asserts. In fact at this antique-filled home just hours before, during a closed-door strategy session of the steering committee, former Miami City Mayor Maurice Ferré warned Gore supporters not to waste their time and money pursuing Cuban-American votes. Local outrage at the Clinton administration in the aftermath of the Elian raid would be too difficult to surmount.

“Concentrate on your strengths,” Ferré advised by telephone a few days later. While he concedes that other Hispanics are likely to vote Democratic, the party hasn't done enough to cultivate those communities. “It's a natural constituency that Latinos will be Democrats,” he says. “There just isn't time before now and November.”

After twelve years as chairman Joe Geller will leave a faltering party at war with itself
Steve Satterwhite
After twelve years as chairman Joe Geller will leave a faltering party at war with itself

As of May there were 87,488 registered Hispanic Democrats in the county, of a total of 373,611 registered Democrats. This compares with 207,193 registered Hispanic Republicans, out of 314,655. The elections department no longer breaks down by nation of origin which Hispanics belong to which party, but it's fair to say the majority of Hispanic Republicans are Cuban. It's unclear what the breakdown is within the Democrats. What is clear is that there exists a growing pool of non-Cuban Hispanics who are not registered to vote.

Ferré left the steering-committee meeting after offering his advice, thereby missing a rebuttal from Gus Garcia, the former executive director of the Miami-Dade DEC and -- as cofounder of the Democracy Movement with Ramon Saul Sanchez -- a flash point of dissension within the party: “Don't abandon the Cuban Democrats,” Garcia told the group. “You can't hide from [them].”

Yes, both parties have made plenty of mistakes concerning Cuba, Garcia says on the patio afterward, but in the final analysis, Democrats have betrayed his people less often than have Republicans. This is the message he wants to sell to his fellow Cubans.

In twelve years as chairman, Geller has depended on others for outreach to Hispanics. And he has relied most on Gus Garcia, whose hard-line views have driven some Democrats to try to oust the chairman. In 1994 Geller hired Garcia as executive director, “with the idea that, more than anything besides recruitment, he could be a spokesperson or voice ... on the radio.” After two years the party could no longer afford to pay Garcia's salary. “At the end we were trying to pay Gus to work on a part-time basis, for around $12,000 a year,” recalls Geller. (He acknowledges they are still trying to pay money owed the former executive director.) Garcia quit the post in 1998 and now serves as the outreach coordinator, a volunteer position.

“Cuban Americans tend to be liberal, except on one thing -- Castro -- where they are to the right of Attila the Hun,” opines Garcia, who kept a daily vigil with Sanchez outside the Little Havana house where Elian Gonzalez lived. The boy's story struck a cord with Garcia, who was four years old in 1959, when his own family fled Cuba. His father, a shopkeeper, had refused to give supplies to Castro's insurgents, who in turn bombed his store and then marked him for death after he turned them in. And just as happened with Elian, the United States denied entry to the Garcias -- in their case, because this nation still had diplomatic relations with the island and the Garcias had not gone through official channels. The family eventually came to the United States via Puerto Rico and settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey; they were one of eight Cuban families in an enclave that grew to 80,000.

Like Geller, Garcia became involved in Democratic politics early. One of his first acquaintances was another young New Jersey Cuban named Robert Menendez, who would eventually become a U.S congressman. In 1987 Garcia moved to Miami to be closer to the woman who would become his fourth wife. He did a stint as chief of staff to Commissioner Pedro Reboredo but left after a year. Then Geller approached him with the idea of being the DEC's executive director.

In 1998 Garcia ran against state Sen. Al Gutman, who was under indictment for Medicare fraud at the time. Although Gutman won by 300 votes, he was forced to relinquish the seat as the result of a subsequent guilty plea. “The Gutman race proved that I could penetrate the Cuban [Republican] community,” says Garcia over lunch at Versailles, the unofficial headquarters of el exilio. He still revels in the fact that he is accepted here.

Critics, however, say Geller and Garcia have made Fidel Castro a litmus test for participation in the party. And they are quick to point to Geller's role as a lawyer for the Democracy Movement. “We feel that we just have a one-party system,” says Alonso Rhenals, president of the Colombian-American Democratic Council. “Both parties obey the interests of the Cuban hard-liners.” To illustrate his point, Rhenals describes a dispute that began in April, when he attended a meeting of presidents of county Democratic clubs. The INS had staged its raid on the Gonzalez home in Little Havana only eight days before. That night, just five presidents attended the bimonthly meeting. Rhenals believed it was important to show solidarity with the administration and to send a letter of support to President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno in the wake of the raid. The five presidents all agreed.

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