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Such a nice young man, this Demetrio J. Perez. So handsome, too. He's got the rosiest cheeks. His prematurely thinning hair is combed neatly in place, and his black suit hangs attractively on his thick frame. He makes fantastic eye contact when he greets you, speaking confidently in a clear, strong voice. His handshake is firm. Such a good-looking boy.
And so conspicuous last week at a candidates forum held in the sterile white auditorium of Palmetto Middle School. The aspiring school board member sat onstage at the end of a long table crowded with candidates for the state House, insurance commissioner, State Attorney, and other elected offices. His opponent in the District 7 school board election sat beside him. As these politicians droned through two-minute speeches in an attempt to sway a smattering of PTA members, Perez waited in his black suit, hands folded on the table in front of him, looking like the earnest young politician he most certainly is.
“We need to reinforce our public confidence,” he said in answer to a question about ethics and elected officials. “I think the school board unfortunately has taken a few hits in the past. One of the things we need to work on is the position of the inspector general. The ethics task force is a new program we have in place to ensure an ethical government.”
He did not say this with a wink. He was not being ironic. Up on the stage he did not look like the young man who has administered a coup de grâce to the school board's representation by district, which was designed to ensure that the disparate regions of the county are served by someone who lives in the community. The 24-year-old law student and son of sitting school board member Demetrio Perez, Jr., did not appear capable of the “reprehensible” behavior ascribed to him by Circuit Court Judge Robert P. Kaye.
Yet only two short months into his political career and Perez is already under investigation by the State Attorney's Office for allegedly misusing the nonprofit status granted to his father's newspaper to disseminate campaign literature. His campaign treasurer's reports on file with the county list thousands of dollars in undocumented donations, an apparent violation of Florida law. Most famously Perez twice filed campaign papers in which he cluelessly claimed to live at addresses outside the district he hopes to represent. (His defense was that he filed the papers during a hectic week.) Only after finally reporting that he had moved for a week to his father's ten-acre farm near Homestead was he able to stay in the race.
Perez's frequent and highly suspicious moves prompted a lawsuit that resulted in his (temporary) removal from the ballot. Last month Judge Kaye found his residence shenanigans “to be a subterfuge [that] bothers the heck out of me. It bothers the court's ... sense of morality, my sense of duty, and my sense of justice.” For good measure, Kaye labeled Perez's courtroom testimony “incredible and unbelievable.”
In a subsequent hearing before the Third District Court of Appeal, Perez's attorney, Kendall Coffey, allowed that Kaye's disgust may be merited, but asserted that the final decision on Perez's fitness for office was not for a court to decide but for the electorate. The three-judge panel of the appeal court agreed with Coffey. Perez's name was restored to the ballot.
That electorate, in grand Miami tradition, enthusiastically backed Perez on September 5, despite all the negative press he'd generated. In the balloting he finished first in a field of six candidates, collecting 31 percent of the votes. His nearest challenger, Homestead-based architect Jacqueline Pepper, collected 21 percent. The two will face each other November 7 in a runoff Perez is heavily favored to win.
“I had many people come up to me and say, “The only reason I came out to vote is because of you,'” Perez related after the Palmetto Middle School event. “They say, “When I see you, I see my grandson or I see my nephew.' They tell me: “I can't believe they would do that to you, railroad you like that.'”
Call it the Humberto Hernandez Effect. In Miami-Dade County politics, at least in certain races and certain neighborhoods, there is no such thing as bad publicity, especially if that publicity emanates from English-language media outlets, the Miami Herald in particular. Hernandez proved the rule numerous times, his political star rising with each televised “perp walk” outside FBI headquarters. The electorate returned Hernandez to his seat on the Miami City Commission even after Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended him from office following an indictment on federal mortgage-fraud charges. Further charges of vote fraud actually solidified Hernandez's base, making him a favorite to win a future election as Miami's mayor. Only the successful prosecution of both cases derailed his career.
Prior to his prosecution and incarceration, Hernandez famously explained his popularity in an interview with New Times. “If you've been around here long enough, you know that nobody gives a flying fuck if you ran a clean campaign,” he snickered. “Nobody gives a shit if you were involved in absentee ballot fraud or what have you. The bottom line is that you won.”
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.”