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When Merrett Stierheim announced his interest in seeking the interim post at the helm of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools,all hell broke loose behind the scenes. "Stierheim!" gasped a collection of lobbyists and political insiders who had enjoyed years of lucrative relationships with the district under former superintendent Roger Cuevas. These people knew exactly what to expect from Stierheim, who more than once in his various stints as county or city manager put a stop to the kind of sweetheart deals for which governmental bureaucracies here are infamous.
Prominent political consultant Armando Gutierrez made calls to some school board members, urging them not to select Stierheim. "He said, “He took the contract away from my wife; he's anti-Cuban,'" relates one school board source who asked to remain anonymous. Gutierrez apparently was still fuming over Stierheim's 1998 role in discontinuing a marketing contract his wife had with the county. (Gutierrez did not return messages seeking his response.)
Hilda Inclan, one of the powers behind the Spanish-language publication La Verdad and a regular presence on Cuban radio, also had reason to discourage Stierheim's appointment. Reports school board member Frank Cobo: "She was on the phone with me for one hour saying, “How can you vote for Stierheim? He didn't give me money for my newspaper [when he was county manager]. He's anti-Cuban.'" (Inclan did not return calls.)
It's not surprising that all nine board members received calls from the public advocating for or against various candidates. But Stierheim's long record as a public servant, and the perception that he already had four or five votes preceding the October 17 meeting at which he was appointed, made him a target for a whisper campaign and attacks on Cuban radio. At the board meeting, a raging Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez made it clear he thought board member Manty Sabates Morse was behind some of the rumormongering; allies of nemesis Alex Penelas, he believes, were behind the rest.
Martinez says he received calls before the vote from board members Perla Hantman, Marta Perez, and Solomon Stinson. They each asked him whether Stierheim was anti-minority, as they were hearing from some callers. "I said, “This is all bullshit because these are all people who don't want Merrett because he's unreachable,'" Martinez remembers. "Someone was planting that."
Some of those who, according to school district sources, contacted board members to lobby against Stierheim included County Commissioners Barbara Carey-Schuler and Natacha Seijas, state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and José "Pepe" Villalobos, father of state Sen. Alex Villalobos.
Those who could be reached for comment were predictably outraged at being named. "Absolutely not!" declared Seijas. "You were given the wrong information. I did not vote for [Stierheim as county manager], but I got along with him fine."
"No, I have not called anybody about Stierheim or anyone else," echoed Villalobos.
Manty Morse, who also says she wasn't behind the anti-Stierheim lobbying, instead blames fellow board members for airing private conversations. "These are people who probably have helped you when you needed help, whether lobbyists or friends who felt they could talk to us," she complains. "I don't think they talked to us so we could divulge it to the media."