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
Temporarily blinded by the blizzard of chad that has smothered South Florida, many people have forgotten that the November 7 ballot contained numerous other contests and issues. North Bay Village bravely vowed to clean up the "linguistic errors" that sullied its city charter. Hialeah embraced professional baseball without any help or apparent interest from the Florida Marlins. And Miami-Dade County approved publicly financed political campaigns without any idea how to do it. Voters also sent men and women to the state House, the mayor's office, and several city commission chambers.
As always for every winner there was a loser. Two of those losers were of particular interest. Political neophytes whose high-flying dreams of public service never got off the runway, they shared quite a bit in common: Both were relatively young men, both claimed Cuban heritage, both enjoyed the benefit of prominent fathers, and both were accused of being cynical carpetbaggers. One more thing: We haven't seen the last of them; both probably will seek elected office again.
Demetrio J. Perez has come of age. A 24-year-old candidate for the Miami-Dade County school board on which his namesake father sits, the baby-faced Perez was disqualified from the race by a circuit court judge just days from a likely win at the polls. But not before losing his electoral virginity in the back seat of dear old dad's political machine. In his first run for public office he managed to provoke bitter court fights, public outrage, media excoriation, and a State Attorney's investigation into campaign-finance irregularities.
But none of this has diminished the toothy gleam of Perez's ubiquitous smile. He's even considering another run for a political office after he finishes law school at the University of Miami. "People responded very positively to me, in spite of all the attacks and everything," he says over coffee at the Starbucks across South Dixie Highway from the UM campus. "So it's something to consider. You can't be an elections chaser, but if something presents itself in the future, I'll certainly consider it. But as of right now, there's a whole world ahead of me."
Some fellow students and professors at UM, however, would like Perez to consider the world behind him. Law professor Anthony V. Alfieri, director and founder of the Center for Ethics & Public Service at UM's School of Law, reports that a number of students have discussed filing an "honors code" complaint with the school on the grounds that Perez's conduct during his school-board campaign -- particularly the matter of his supposed residence -- may have involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. If they do, Perez might have to explain himself once again, this time in front of a student honors council, a quasi-judicial tribunal that can recommend punishment to the law school's dean.
According to Alfieri, Perez also might expect a character-and-fitness investigation of his conduct to take place when he seeks admission to the Florida Bar. "It is a troubling matter for the law school community," Alfieri notes. "It has given pause to the students and the faculty. Insofar as our students have experienced [Perez's] travails as a kind of moral object lesson, that's all to the good."
Back at the coffee shop two weeks after the election, Perez ponders this question: If he could rewind to July, would he do anything differently? "That's the $20-million question," he chuckles. "I always say that I wish I could have read the map more carefully that first time. They say hindsight is 20/20, but honestly it's just mind-boggling -- one little detail."
Another little detail: Did he think it appropriate to have two close relatives sitting on the same school board? Perez's perpetual grin wilts slightly around the edges and then quickly returns. He leans forward as he confides that his father posed a similar question: "He asked me: “So, don't you think it's going to be strange?' Some people may say that we have the perfect relationship. I wouldn't trade my father for anybody else. In the end, though, if I was going to go on the [school] board and be his puppet, I'd immediately be out of there when my re-election came up in four years." This was good enough for Perez the elder, who had one more piece of advice for his son: "He told me to really think about it and see if this was what I wanted to do. He told me obviously there are sacrifices when you get into public office. You're now in the public eye."
Frank Cobo, a Perez opponent who didn't make it past the primary, doesn't buy the business about sacrifices and political independence. He believes Perez was never a legitimate candidate, and he's suing to force a new election with all the original candidates except Perez. "He did everything wrong," Cobo asserts. "There isn't one thing he did right. Whether I have a special election or not, I'm proud to say I kept that joker off the board."
The antagonism is lost on Perez. He insists he was always honest about his efforts to find a residence within District 7. "To tell you the truth, I know I didn't do anything wrong," he says. "I am in a career where integrity is important, and frankly it's ludicrous to think I'm going to come out and make up these stories and jeopardize my career for a seat on the school board. I'm at peace with whatever [the various judges] decided. I don't agree with what they said, but I can go to sleep at night knowing I told the truth. I was basing myself on the way the law was written. If people don't agree with that, then they need to change the law."