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She doesn't look like a Spanish knight beset by noble delusions, yet ever since Rosa Kasse decided to go jousting with political giants, even her friends have warned her to watch out for windmills. But Kasse, a 56-year-old Democrat originally from the Dominican Republic, believes she has a shot at unseating Republican state Rep. Ralph Arza from his District 102 seat come November.
Arza currently sits on the House Education Appropriations Committee, and since being elected in 2000 has made himself the go-to guy for education issues for both the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and Gov. Jeb Bush. He is also a former high school football coach who relishes a good contest, so Kasse had better learn how to block and tackle. Mostly people advise her to punt.
Kasse is known primarily as founder and president of the Hispanic Coalition, a fifteen-year-old social-service agency that offers help with immigration, employment, and family issues. Why would a political novice who runs an agency that depends on government grants want to pit herself against a powerful state legislator? Basically, Kasse maintains, she's just an angry constituent tired of watching her representative use his office primarily to feed his own ambitions.
She's particularly unhappy about Arza's public-education battles, which have tended to favor private-sector solutions. "I believe Ralph Arza is trying to destroy our public schools," she says. "All his actions are for him to make money, but he's not looking after the well-being of people in District 102."
Arza: "I regret that she feels like that. I think I work very hard and I'm very focused in my district."
Kasse begs to disagree, citing two consulting gigs Arza picked up this past summer after taking leave from his $57,375 position as a history teacher at Miami High. As reported by the Herald, Miami City Manager Joe Arriola in September handed him a no-bid contract worth $3500 per month (not to exceed $25,000 over six months) to serve as a consultant on education matters. About the same time Arza also received an invite from Florida International University to be a "visiting lecturer" for nine months. Fee: $23,000. (Arza makes $28,000 per year as a legislator.)
It's hard to believe, Kasse argues, that these institutions are paying a former history teacher who (according to a WPLG-TV report last year) missed 120 out of 212 workdays in 2002 solely for his education expertise. With an attendance record like that, Kasse is not sure the school district was paying Arza for his education expertise either. She's adamant that a legislator should not be paid as a consultant when the arrangement could force him to choose between representing the people who elected him and the people signing his paycheck. "He has to make a decision," she asserts. "He cannot be with God and the devil at the same time. He's a legislator or he's a lobbyist. Not both. He should resign one or the other."
The contracts Arza has with the City of Miami and FIU aren't actually lobbying contracts, but it's worth noting that in past legislative sessions he has worked closely (so far unsuccessfully) with Miami officials to pass legislation allowing municipalities to convert public schools within their borders to city-run charter schools.
Arza maintains there is no conflict because he cleared the contract with the House counsel, and his work with the city is a short-term, one-time deal. "It's no closer [to a conflict] than me being a teacher or like Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall or Frederica Wilson being [school district] administrators," he offers. "Before I got elected, there were a lot of legislators working in the system and it wasn't a problem."
When he was first elected, Arza recalls, former Miami-Dade Public Schools superintendent Roger Cuevas allocated another teacher to team-teach with him. Arza would then videotape his portion of the lessons from Tallahassee. Nonetheless he decided to take a leave from the school district. That's when Miami Mayor Manny Diaz asked him to help formulate an ambitious plan to take control of the educational destiny of his city. A key element in attracting residents back to Miami's redeveloping urban core, the plan includes partnering with industry and even with the City of Key Biscayne to build charter schools, provide supplemental education services in city parks, and other initiatives. "The schools in the city are 30 to 40 percent below capacity, and he's got 35,000 [housing] units coming on line in the next few years," Arza says. "If he doesn't change the schools, people won't move back into the city. He sees that his city will die unless this changes."
Arza told him, fine, but I have a wife and five kids to support. So Arriola got him a contract and Arza began bustling about, advising and seeking local support for Diaz's ideas. He ferried developer (and school district oversight board member) Ed Easton and the mayor of Key Biscayne to see charter schools in Doral to get them interested in a joint project with the city. He proposed a city-school quality board that would have residents assess the educational needs of each city school. "I only got about $18,000," Arza says, "and I think I worked like eight months and they paid me for six. We are part-time legislators and we all have to make a living. That's just the reality. My whole thing is if you're going to take a shot, be fair. Don't try to single me out because you're trying to get elected."
Kasse notes, however, that Arza's contract ends February 28, just three days before the legislative session begins. To her the timing looks like tacit acknowledgement of a potential conflict: "I believe when you are an elected official, that's your priority every day of the year, not just during the session."
FIU, meanwhile, sent a letter inviting Arza to become a visiting lecturer beginning August 13, 2003, about a week before his official sabbatical at the school district began. College of Education Dean Linda Blanton was out of town at press time and couldn't be reached for comment. Her letter to Arza, however, describes his duties this way: "Provide guest lectures, advise and support the college's recruitment efforts, serve as a liaison with school district personnel and policy makers, and serve in an advisory role to the Dean and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs on matters related to teacher education curricula." Arza says his work at FIU has largely involved meeting with education faculty to share his experiences on the political side of the education equation.
In the cramped and frenetic offices of the Hispanic Coalition on Flagler Street, Kasse tries her best to run a modest campaign amid the barely contained chaos of a front-line social-service organization. Her dyed-blond hair is slightly mussed, and the gold polish on her nails a bit chipped. On the jacket of her green suit is a pin that announces her candidacy; a smaller gold pin on the lapel forms the word NICE. "I've been working with the people for fifteen years," she says. "I listen to their problems and seek solutions."
But it will take more than the common touch to upset the hegemony of the Cuban boys club that dominates the Miami-Dade legislative delegation. It will take money and relentless energy, both of which Arza has in abundance. "I like campaigning and I like campaigns," he practically grins into the phone from his Tallahassee office.
Arza had raised $147,883 as of December 31, the vast majority of it in the three months after Kasse entered the race. His list of campaign contributors is laden with construction companies, charter-school companies, health-insurance and food-service companies, among many others. Even old enemies give generously. For example, Demetrio Perez, Jr., against whom Arza lost a bid for the school board in 1996, has contributed at least $3000 through his various businesses, including the tabloid Libre and the Lincoln-Martí schools. In contrast Kasse had raised just $8500 by the end of the year, mostly from friends and family.
Like any aspiring politician, she dug out her book of contacts and began calling potential supporters. Because the Hispanic Coalition has always been involved in voter-registration drives, Kasse has come to know a lot of Miami's vote brokers over the years. Perhaps a bit naively, she thought her past efforts would mean something now. She tried old allies like former Miami Mayor and county Commissioner Maurice Ferré, former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, even Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. "At least [Martinez] didn't tell me to move out of Arza's district if I want to run for office," she recalls. "He said, 'I can't support you because [Arza's] family and my family come from the same city in Cuba and he's been helping us in Tallahassee.'"