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Politics in Hialeah is not for the faint-hearted. It's intense. It gets up close and personal. It galvanizes the entire city. And it is played by a strictly enforced set of rules. As most people know, Mayor for Life Raul Martinez, the undisputed high priest of Hialeah, writes those rules. Foolishly break them and suffer the consequences. The smoldering hulks of quite a few political careers -- strafed, bombed, and abandoned -- are testament to Raul Rule No. 1: Cross him and you'll be pulverized.
So what the heck were hometown girls Vanessa Bravo, Cindy Miel, and Adriana Narvaez thinking when they decided to run for seats on the Hialeah City Council? The three incumbents they're aiming to defeat? Each a Martinez henchman -- politically savvy, well funded, and utterly loyal.
"There was no opposition in the last election, and that can't happen in a democracy," says Cindy Miel, a 22-year-old first-grade teacher who is heading into battle against Councilman Julio Ponce, who owes his political power to the mayor. (Martinez arranged for him to defeat a city council incumbent who had dared to challenge mayoral hegemony.)
"There is not a lot of debate on the council on issues affecting our community, and that needs to change," says Bravo, a 28-year-old lawyer on a collision course with Councilman Willie Zuñiga, whose very title was bestowed by the mayor. (Martinez appointedhim to the city council.)
"I think it's a great way for me to give back to the community," says Narvaez, a 28-year-old St. Thomas University psychology graduate student. The city councilman who'll be giving it right back to her is Eddy Gonzalez. (Martinez also appointed him to the council.)
So who might have led these starry-eyed young ladies to believe they stood the proverbial snowball's chance against this Raul Martinez trifecta? Who else but a cabal of disaffected Hialeah businessmen with the mayor in their crosshairs and revenge on their minds. Led by one Modesto Perez, the businessmen since early January have been herding their little brood of neophytes to campaign stops all over town. A typical one took place on a recent Sunday at Tropical Café, where dozens of Hialeah viejos were lured by a free breakfast of scrambled eggs and ham, Cuban toast, and café con leche.
Flanked by the candidates and their advisors, Perez addressed the crowd in Spanish. "It's been five years since our city had a female voice on the council," he boomed, jabbing at the air to drive home the point. "But come November 4, we're going to have three councilwomen in Hialeah!"
Perez's embrace of feminism may come as a surprise to those who know him well, but there's no doubt about his appreciation of history. The last female voice on the Hialeah City Council indeed was silenced years ago (though less than three, not five) -- and in that lies a cautionary tale, one that Perez apparently thought better of reciting before his covey of candidates.
Carmen Caldwell, the councilwoman in question, managed to spend eight years in office despite an independent streak that increasingly put her at odds with Raul Martinez's version of a civic agenda. Finally the mayor's legendary tolerance for dissent ran its course and Caldwell was marked for pulverization. The coup de grâce was administered by Julio Ponce, former director of the scandal-plagued Hialeah Housing Authority and handpicked Martinez proxy.
"It was not an easy campaign," Caldwell recounts with subdued understatement. "People were very reluctant to give me money or put up campaign signs on their properties because they had issues pending before the city council." Which is another way of saying that, even though she had previously enjoyed widespread support and two successful election campaigns, when the mayor made it clear she had to go, her supporters simply vanished.
Martinez prefers to look ahead, not to dwell on the past. He's already anticipating the November elections. "I will certainly be supporting, campaigning, you name it, for the incumbents," he says from his city hall office. "We've made tremendous progress, and that is due to the unity we have on the council."
Unity, rubber stamp, however it's described, Martinez likes it that way and has since he was first elected mayor in 1981 (he's never lost an election). He can run one more time, in 2005, before recently enacted term limits spell an end to his unprecedented tenure as mayor of Miami-Dade's second-biggest city, and the only "strong" mayor in the county. (His job description includes the duties of city manager, one reason for his also unprecedented salary package of more than $220,000.)
With six more years at the helm virtually assured, Martinez won't sit idle while his political enemies run a slate of candidates in hopes of wresting control of the council. Already he's trying out campaign themes: "How come these girls are getting involved now? Anyone can run for office, but what have they done? When have they ever shown an interest in city affairs?"
And he wonders about their independence, about the possibility they may be mere dupes of Modesto Perez and his cohorts. "If these ladies are running independently," the mayor says, "then I have nothing against them. But if they become puppets of these individuals, then I would be ashamed if I were them." This despite the glaringly obvious fact that truly independent council candidates in Hialeah are about as rare as five-star hotels on Okeechobee Road.
Fine points aside, Martinez notes that Perez sued the city following his arrest at a brawl in an Eckerd drugstore involving him, his son, and individuals who allegedly insulted his wife. Perez believed Hialeah police violated his constitutional rights (not to mention his pride) and he wanted the city to be punished. In the end, though, it was Perez who got stung. He lost the case and was forced to cover the city's legal fees: $87,000. When he balked, the city, at the mayor's direction, filed liens against Perez's income properties. "It's a great injustice," Perez complains.
Another member of the anti-Martinez cabal is Vicente Rodriguez, president of the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce, who helped persuade Cindy Miel to take the political plunge. "Vicente is always complaining that he can't make any money while I'm mayor," Martinez says with barely disguised sarcasm.
Rodriguez counters that the mayor awards contracts only to companies and individuals aligned with his political agenda. "In Hialeah," he grumbles, "competitive bidding doesn't exist."
"If these guys are using the young ladies for their own personal vendettas, shame on them," Martinez continues. "Perez in particular has always wanted to be the guy behind the throne. If the girls are smart, they won't allow these people to use them."
The candidates themselves are not pleased to hear the buzz that they're simply pawns on a political chessboard. Adriana Narvaez, for one, insists she owes no one any favors. "And I certainly don't expect to owe anyone favors if I'm elected," she adds emphatically.
But what about the prospects of being flattened by the Raul Martinez juggernaut? "I don't waste my time with that stuff," Vanessa Bravo says bravely. "My goal is to work hard and continue developing my grassroots efforts."
First-grade teacher Miel, speaking from Treasure Island Elementary during a rowdy recess, sums it up: "I certainly don't have anything against the mayor, but I don't think one person has the power to influence 72,000 voters in Hialeah."