An Old-Fashioned Mayor

Hialeah's Raul Martinez: "I don't need a machine"

On September 14, amid the nonstop Attack on America! news coverage, at least two of Miami's TV stations paused long enough to report the results of Hialeah's municipal elections earlier that Friday: Mayor Raul Martinez and four incumbent city councilmen had been returned to office without opposition.

Hialeah city clerk Dan DeLoach was home by then, sitting at his dining room table, when he saw the report. Election? "What did I miss?" he wondered. The next morning the Miami Herald announced, "Martinez coasts to victory in Hialeah," and the Sun-Sentineladded, "Mayor, four city council members re-elected."

Even Raul Martinez might have been scratching his head. Because there was no election that Friday in Hialeah. "Nobody," confirms DeLoach, "went to the polls."

So the local media got a little confused; they'd been distracted by some terrorist attacks that week. Still, September 14 was a noteworthy day for the City That Progresses. For the first time in its 75-year history, according to DeLoach (Hialeah's informal historian), a Hialeah election has been canceled because no one is running for office. Here, where political season is marked by festive car caravans, yard signs proliferating like untended sunflowers, huddled haggling at Chico's Restaurant, and nonstop invective on AM radio, it's been boringly quiet.

"August 21 to September 14 was the qualifying time for candidates," explains DeLoach. "What happened was the only folks who came in [to the city clerk's office to qualify] were incumbents, so on Friday after the five o'clock deadline passed, I called [Miami-Dade County elections supervisor] David Leahy and told him we're not having an election this year, because the only people who filed papers were incumbents. We've averaged eighteen to twenty [council candidates] every two years, so this is a first."

November 6 is election day in Miami-Dade's most populous municipalities. That was the day the mayor and four city council positions were supposed to be up for grabs in Hialeah. Instead, on November 6 Martinez, 51 years old, will be sworn in for his eighth term as mayor of the second largest municipality in Miami-Dade County. Councilmen Julio Robaina and Steve Bovo will begin their second four-year terms; former state Sen. Roberto Casas and Willie Zuniga, both appointed in 2000 to fill vacant council positions, now have four- and two-year mandates, respectively.

The seven-member council wasted no time congratulating itself and especially Martinez. At a budget meeting on Monday, September 24, the mayor got a raise of more than $45,000, bringing his total pay package to $220,500 -- the highest of any Miami-Dade municipal mayor but not disproportionate considering Martinez, as a strong mayor, performs the additional job of city manager. Council members increased their own yearly compensation from $32,400 to $38,400.

Hialeah's council seats are at-large, although in 1999 the city charter was amended to require that each candidate choose to be part of one of seven "groups" instead of the traditional setup in which all the candidates run in a pack and those with the most votes join the council.

Martinez first became mayor of Hialeah in 1981, has never lost an election, and is eligible to run for one more term in 2005. There is talk of a campaign for the U.S. House or for governor after that, about which Martinez sounds skeptical. He has outlasted a series of council opponents, all of whom eventually retired or were defeated at the polls. Today the mayor can count on unanimous (or nearly so) council approval for just about every project he proposes. He has made and broken political careers: Rene Garcia, 27 years old, was first elected to the council in 1997 as an unknown but with the mayor's backing. Last November Garcia won a seat in the Florida State House of Representatives. (Long-time Martinez supporter Zuniga was appointed to fill Garcia's council position.) On the other hand, well-regarded former council member Carmen Caldwell steadfastly refused to play along with the mayor, who after eight years engineered her defeat at the hands of his chosen candidate, Hialeah Housing Authority director Julio Ponce.

Thus any discussion of Hialeah politics invariably includes debate on the subject of Martinez's "machine." Martinez laughs at the notion and points to his nemesis and former protégé, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who is indeed the figurehead of one of the state's richest and most influential political apparatuses (and who, like Martinez, began his political career on the Hialeah city council). Martinez may be at the peak of his power, but that power has come more from his individual work than from political mechanisms.

"In the past [Martinez] has endorsed some candidates who won," says Miami political consultant Alberto Lorenzo, who has worked on many major campaigns in the county, including Penelas's. "But the thing about political machinery is it depends on the candidate. Voters have grown a lot, there are a lot of young kids and professionals coming up now, and they understand issues more than personal battles, so it's not that easy to transfer a vote anymore. Raul is very strong on municipal issues. It's not a matter of machinery; it's him personally. People think he's done a good job. He's a very professional manager when it comes to city issues."

Outside the city, though, Martinez has not yet proved himself as thoroughly. His staunch ally Roberto Casas, forced by term limits to retire from the state Senate last year, challenged Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Seijas, a former Hialeah council member and Penelas partisan. Casas, despite his eighteen years of service in the legislature, immense local popularity, and campaigning by Martinez, lost decisively. Former Hialeah council president and Martinez loyalist Alex Morales similarly lost a bid for the Senate seat vacated by Casas. The winner, backed by Penelas, was former state Rep. Rudy Garcia.

But this year there's none of that suspense. Some observers think Hialeah has been so quiet because everyone is concentrating on next year's State House, Senate, and gubernatorial races. That never stopped Hialeah's scrappy dissidents before, however, leading to the conclusion there's simply an opponent shortage. "It's really tough to find qualified candidates in the city of Hialeah to run and who can attract the people with money," opines an activist who has worked against Martinez in past elections. Others figure it's just not worth the effort and expense to fight a well-fortified city hall. Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno has an interesting theory: He told the Herald that Martinez's enemies might have passed on this election as a ploy to prevent the mayor from mobilizing his workers and raising money. "A campaign allows him to keep his political machine tuned," reasons Moreno, who has been a consultant to Penelas and did polling work for Rudy Garcia. "So in a sense by not running anyone against him, you keep that machine inactive and hope it atrophies."

Martinez, the veteran populist who brags about never having conducted a poll, has no use for such speculation. "Moreno's an asshole," he snaps. "He took money from the other side. When was the last time he was in Hialeah? The last four years have been great for the city; we've moved forward, we've built roads, brought in new business, we're bettering the parks and maintaining the millage [property tax] rate. People are seeing the benefit of that. I don't need a machine."

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