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This same soft-on-crime voting bloc apparently does give a flying fuck about young Perez. “The day after [Judge] Kaye's ruling, when I turned on my computer, I had received hundreds of e-mails. More than 300!” Perez said following last week's forum. “Now, some of them were critical, saying, “You got what you deserved.' But most of them -- nearly all of them -- were very, very supportive.”
Like Hernandez, both Perez and his father “are old-style Cuban politicians,” says Armando Pomar, one of the defeated District 7 school board candidates. “[They] appeal to the Cuban voters, the old Cubans who remain nostalgic for their country. And with a turnout of less than 30 percent, most of these people that went to vote were these older Cubans.”
Those aging exiles were primed for voting by the elder Perez, a long-time Miami politician who's engine remains perpetually stuck in campaign mode. The Perez name is well-known in the Cuban community from the elder's frequent visits to nursing homes and senior centers, and by his high-profile ownership of Lincoln-Martí, the private school chain attended by Elian Gonzalez. The elder Perez appears regularly on Radio Mambí. His face and name are plastered all over each week's copy of his Libre newspaper -- ostensibly a nonprofit educational vehicle.
Demetrio J. is so dependent on his father's name and political machinery, he makes George W. Bush look like an orphan. In recent weeks Demetrio J.'s face has begun competing for space in Libre. The younger Perez put his name on the ballot as Demetrio Perez, prompting obvious confusion with his father. His father cut radio commercials for his son, which only served to confuse potential voters further.
It was the father who outfitted young Demetrio for a political career in the first place, giving him a one-dollar-per-year position on the elder's school board staff. Thanks to his father, the son, a full-time law student who has never run for office and who entered the District 7 race at the last minute, has been able to raise more than $76,000 for his campaign. As of the last financial reporting-period deadline, August 31, opponent Jacqueline Pepper had collected a mere $1500 in donations.
Like father, like son regarding ethics, too, especially when it comes to residency. Four years ago, during his initial campaign for the school board's District 5 seat, the elder Perez claimed on his voter registration form to live with friends in an apartment near the Orange Bowl, inside District 5. But his concealed-weapon permit indicated he lived outside the district, at the Palace Condominium on Brickell Avenue, where he has actually resided for more than a decade. His driver's license and other public documents were linked to the headquarters of his private school chain, which is also outside District 5. “I can change my residence like I change my watch,” he told New Times back in 1997. “I move from one to another. It doesn't make any difference.”
Such brazen opportunism, coupled with his arrest last year for trying to carry two loaded handguns onto an airplane at Miami International Airport, did nothing to diminish the elder Perez's popularity; he was re-elected on September 5. No one dared run against him.
The father's invincibility even in the face of scandal has been passed down a generation and is reflected in the son's campaign literature. Despite all his troubles explaining his residency, the younger Perez still made “honesty” the centerpiece of his campaign platform.
“I've always been honest with everybody,” Demetrio J. explained in the Palmetto auditorium as a handful of potential voters lingered after the event, sipping coffee or soda from plastic cups. “From the first moment, I said I was doing it [changing residences] to qualify. It's unusual. I don't think there's anybody else out there who moved themselves three times in one week like I did.”
Last week the Herald and WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reported the State Attorney's investigation of Demetrio J.'s campaign. Both news organizations also chipped away further at the credibility of the young candidate's residency claims. Apparently there is no farmhouse on the ten-acre property where Perez claimed to have spent a week. Nor is there residential electricity or running water.
Perez's twenty-year-old girlfriend, Susan Brown, testified in court that Perez lived on the farm for a week, saying “there was a bathroom there, shoes there, he had ... clothes there, a bed there, stuff to eat, some juice.” Yet the only structures on the property are a thatched chickee and a small tool shed. A neighbor swears nobody even camped out there during the week Perez alleges he called it home.
At the forum, a day before the new developments were publicized, Perez insisted he did live on the farm as he claims. “There is a house,” he said, expressing bafflement at how someone could claim otherwise. “It has running water, electricity, everything. The only reason I moved [off the farm] is because it was too far away. I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning.
“It's unusual, I'll grant you that,” he repeated, referring to his living arrangements. “But my entire political history is completely unique.”