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If you don't live in a West Miami-Dade community like Miami Lakes, Hialeah, or Doral, and if you don't stalk the political hunting grounds of Tallahassee or the Miami school board, you've probably never heard of Ralph Arza -- unless maybe you were a fan of Miami High School football in the late Eighties, when Arza coached several winning seasons.
But it's time you learned something about the man who is plotting a political takeover of public education in Miami.
Arza's audacious power grab is likely to succeed. Why? Because this 44-year-old Republican state legislator is obsessed with the beleaguered school system in a way no one else is. And as anyone who has played football for or against Arza can tell you, when he sets his sights on a goal, he'll do whatever it takes to get there.
"I call him el Diablo," laughs Don Soldinger, a local high school football coaching legend who currently whips running backs into shape at the University of Miami. "He's a pretty tenacious guy, super organized, and always studied the game. It's exciting to see what he's done in politics. He kind of approaches that the same way he did coaching. And Ralph was a great coach."
From coach to politician -- Arza has successfully made the leap to a different kind of game. A failed bid for the school board in 1996 quickly became a successful effort to win a seat on the Doral community council. In 2000 he ran for the legislature from District 102, a race he won by a landslide. (The district encompasses most of Hialeah, parts of Miami Lakes, and a small portion of Broward County.) In the short time since, Arza has positioned himself at the nexus of educational issues in South Florida and to a lesser extent, statewide. He is vice chairman of the House Education Committee, chairs the subcommittee that targets K-12, and sits on the House Education Appropriations Committee. On the subject of education, Arza has the ear of Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican leadership.
In addition, Miami-Dade's Tallahassee delegation defers to him almost entirely when it comes to his pet issue. Partially this is due to term limits, which force legislators (who get a maximum of four two-year terms) to rise fast in the ranks, make a mark, then quickly find another place to land. Arza came in with the largest freshman class since 1967: 63 out of 120 representatives, which meant Tallahassee was basically wide open. With no more than four years left in office as a state representative, Arza clearly is using his position as a legislator to assert his will, intimidate opponents, and dramatically alter the educational landscape in Miami.
"The term 'godfather' may apply," allows Odel Torres, who served with Arza on the Doral community council. "If you're going to talk about schools, you'd better talk to him first. He's learned to play the game very well. A good politician."
Arza has been a controversial figure in his drive to force change. Some see him as a tireless champion of quality schools, a David figure fighting the monstrous school board Goliath. Others view him as a cynical political opportunist eager to gain control over the district's four-billion-dollar annual budget and the power that comes with it.
Aiding him in his quest is the disorganized state of the Miami-Dade school system over the past few years -- caught in a seemingly endless cycle of scandals, shortsighted turf battles, and a discouraging inertia. The school board is a caricature of government out of whack, and Arza's opinions about redirecting the structure toward schools and kids resonate with many people. His fellow Republican legislators, with whom he shares a generally disapproving view of public education, are more than happy to let him tackle it. Some colleagues privately describe him as a "pit bull" who can be either a stalwart friend or fierce foe.
A good deal of Arza's credibility with other lawmakers is built on his experience as a history teacher at Miami High (currently he's on leave), even though all five of his own kids are home-schooled by his wife. Arza has used these credentials, and his considerable drive, to push an agenda of reform on the Miami-Dade district. "We need to transform the district," he argues. "Turn it upside down and shake it and see what's left. You almost have to destroy what's there in order to rebuild."
Observers who have watched Arza in action say his clout comes from his usefulness as a soldier serving the larger agendas of other legislators and lobbyists. He's an effective speaker also known for being an attitude adjuster for the Republican leadership on the floor, sometimes to the point of actually standing in front of someone and giving him the thumbs-down on an errant vote. "The power he has is basically because people use him to [rhetorically] beat the shit out of other people," one spectator says. "He doesn't see that because of his megalomania. If this were a Greek tragedy, that would be his tragic flaw."
But Dan Gelber, a Democratic legislator from Miami Beach, says Arza is no "bull in a china shop." Rather he's a strategic thinker whose prominence in House education matters is appropriate because he knows what he's talking about: "He's a personable colleague, gregarious, and he has a deep understanding of education issues."