Behind the Ballot

Voters will choose between Jacqueline Pepper and Frank Cobo, but the real candidates are the superintendent and the school board

Less than a year ago, architect Jacqueline Pepper was known publicly only to a small circle of zoning enthusiasts who attended meetings of the Redland Community Council, on which she sat. Then she joined the race with six other contenders for the District 7 school board seat. There she passed a virtually anonymous couple of months -- until suddenly people realized that baby-faced shed-dweller Demetrio J. Perez would probably skate effortlessly into office on the $180,000 war chest his daddy had helped shake out of hundreds of teachers and administrators wary of the elder Perez's clout on the school board.

Pepper's bargain-bin campaign immediately picked up supporters from opponents who lost in the primaries, including those of Frank Cobo and Firpo Garcia, who also were fighting in the courts to knock Perez off the ballot because he didn't live in District 7. They were united in this brief shining moment by a desire to see anyone but another Perez on a school board already loaded with self-serving politicians. Somehow it worked. A judge sent Perez packing four days before the election, and Pepper, the last remaining candidate, "won" office with 54,808 votes.

The school district ended up with a new board member, but one whose low-key campaign had been essentially irrelevant to her own victory. On the positive side, Pepper was an outsider to the system, and she owed nothing to anyone. That, however, quickly changed.

Her first day on the job in November, Pepper made two quick decisions, one of which presented a puzzling contradiction to her stated intentions to promote accountability in the school system. She nominated maverick reformer Marta Perez for vice chairman of the board in a motion doomed to fail, and she hired her husband, Donald Jones, as an aide at a salary of $55,000. Three months later Pepper sided with seven of her colleagues in voting to extend superintendent Roger Cuevas's lucrative contract without first publicly evaluating his work or setting new standards. She later told a citizens group she would vote the same way again, because the alternative would be to conduct an expensive national search, or to promote someone from within the system. "My problem with the superintendent is the people under him," she declared. "I don't see our next superintendent sitting there."

These decisions have aligned Pepper with the school board status quo -- not exactly a political plus when the status quo has meant scandals involving suspicious land deals, wasted money, and the federal indictment of the elder Demetrio Perez on felony charges of mail fraud, making false statements, and conspiracy.

With a new election mandated by the courts for June 26, Pepper finds herself in a race that once again may have little to do with her. "Whether fortunately or unfortunately, it's going to be a referendum on the superintendent and on the board, regardless of who's running," opines G. Holmes Braddock, Pepper's predecessor on the board. "Any incumbent running right at this time will probably pick up some tarnishment, whether it's justified or unjustified." Opponent Frank Cobo, a real estate agent and civic activist who finished a gnat's whisker behind Pepper in the primary last year, is counting on that sentiment to win this time.

For Cobo, Pepper's status as an incumbent has become a convenient billy club, a weapon he wields with well-practiced precision even as she frequently falls into the trap of blaming the media for casting the school district in a negative light. "It's not as bad as the Herald and Channel 10 make it out to be," Pepper complained to a group of Kendall homeowners earlier this month.

Meanwhile Cobo has the luxury of being able to utter statements like this: "Frank Cobo wants to return pride, integrity, and the confidence of the public to the system." But playing the outside reformer is a bit of a stretch for Cobo, a smooth political operator who has successfully guided candidates into office a half-dozen times over the years -- even as he failed four times to win election to anything himself. He has worked on campaigns for former state Rep. Lee Weissenborn, former Miami mayors David Kennedy and Maurice Ferré, former Miami Commissioner Rosario Kennedy, and former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jorge Valdes.

United Teachers of Dade (UTD) spokeswoman Annette Katz notes that Cobo, a small, round man with an earnest face and appraising brown eyes, has been around school board politics for years. "Ironically he's more of an insider than [Pepper] is," Katz asserts. "He has run a lot of campaigns of former members [such as Braddock and current member Betsy Kaplan]." The teachers union is throwing its considerable weight behind Pepper, which will help tremendously as Pepper attempts to close the fundraising gap between herself and Cobo, who had raised $28,000 (about half from his own pocket) to Pepper's paltry $4200 as of June 8. "We think she's done an excellent job in her brief tenure," Katz offers, pointing to Pepper's laser focus on school construction. "She's not a yes person by any stretch. She's brought many things to the board from the standpoint of trying to fix things." A union phone bank is busily contacting teachers at home, asking them to support her for another reason. As one automated message explains: "We really need to support Jackie because Jackie is supporting us during critical contract negotiations with the school district."

Cobo attempts to turn this UTD support into a liability for Pepper by drawing a sinister triangle that connects her to UTD and a health-insurance provider promoted by lobbyist Ric Sisser. During a candidates forum held at the Kendall Village Center on June 11, a man in the audience asked Pepper about that connection and fundraising for her campaign. "Yes, Ric Sisser is raising money for me," she snapped, blond topknot quivering briefly. "Ric Sisser raises money for nearly every significant politician in Dade County."

The question was legitimate if unwelcome. But it turned the juice in Pepper's veins from jalapeño to habanero because it was not the first such confrontational query to come from certain members of the audience during that two-hour session. Pepper believed she saw the clever hand of Frank Cobo at work. "I am very uncomfortable with this crowd," she grumbled. "There are some other hands up here who are not these planted people."

Expect more tough questions before June 26 from a public that is fully awake and paying attention to the school board for the first time in years. The election will do more than settle the issue of District 7 representation; it also will serve as a civics lesson to other members of the board already looking ahead to races in 2002. Jackie Pepper has the misfortune of being forced to run so soon after a rash of scandals, and as a result she may pay for problems she did little to create. But if fundamental changes are not made in the way the school district manages its affairs, new scandals most certainly will emerge, and more board members will feel the sting of public rebuke.

How the candidates see the issues:

1. Would you vote to fire Cuevas? Pepper says no. Cobo says no, he wants to evaluate him first.

2. Do you think the board should conduct public evaluations of the superintendent and board attorney? Pepper says yes, if the rules are changed to allow it. Cobo says yes.

3. Do you think deputy superintendent Henry Fraind should be fired? Pepper says no, because board members can't fire staff. Cobo says yes, he will ask Cuevas to fire Fraind.

4. Do you think the school district needs an inspector general? An ethics commission? Pepper says yes to both. Cobo says yes to both.

5. Would you vote to name a school after a sitting board member? Pepper says probably not. Cobo says absolutely not.

6. Do you think state oversight of the school district's finances is warranted? Pepper says yes, but it shouldn't be seen as a threat. Cobo says yes, it worked for the City of Miami.

7. Would you vote to require lobbyists to disclose their fees? Pepper says yes. Cobo says maybe.

8. What is the single greatest problem facing the school district? Pepper says overcrowded classrooms. Cobo says overcrowded classrooms and the teacher shortage.

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