Meet Mr. Arza

In four short years, state Rep. Ralph Arza has gone from schoolteacher to powerful politician, and now he's about to take control of public education in Miami

A number of people who know Arza say his Napoleonic political style is a type well known in Miami. This evaluation is corroborated by many different sources for this story, from bureaucrats to politicians to lobbyists, most of whom would only speak reluctantly and anonymously. Even Frank Cobo, Arza's harshest critic on the school board, has backed off recently, perhaps out of concern for widespread rumors that Arza plans to back an opponent for his seat. "Our relationship has gotten better," he says optimistically. "I don't hold grudges, I really don't." (Arza is unmoved: "My only question is: Is Cobo the best person for the school board?")

Sources familiar with Arza describe a man who is charming and funny in one context, ruthless and conniving in another. He kowtows to men with more money or power, but expects absolute fealty from those he considers his subordinates. He binds people to him with a combination of favors, threats, and psychological tactics reminiscent of fraternity hazing rituals -- or a particularly aggressive coach indoctrinating his players. "He's not a bad person," offers one former supporter from Doral, "but he needs to survive, and the only way he knows how is Hialeah-style politics."

One example of that is Tony Sanchez, a former Hialeah Gardens police officer who is frequently seen driving Arza to various community meetings. Sanchez likes to tell people he's Arza's "advisor" on police matters. A scary thought.

Two school board members who are considered Arza 
surrogates: Frank Bolaños and Agustin Barrera 
(Arza's brother-in-law)
Jonathan Postal
Two school board members who are considered Arza surrogates: Frank Bolaños and Agustin Barrera (Arza's brother-in-law)
Arza on Arza: "Sometimes I'm like a walking 
contradiction -- I pray and then I go out and want to 
tear somebody's head off"
Arza on Arza: "Sometimes I'm like a walking contradiction -- I pray and then I go out and want to tear somebody's head off"

Sanchez was fired from the Hialeah Gardens Police Department twice. According to police records, he was terminated in 1995 after being involved in an improper car chase and then lying about it. He was later rehired. In 1996 he was suspended for allegedly harassing and spying on fellow employees. In 1998 he was fired again. The Sweetwater Police Department also fired him in 1990, in part for "not meeting department standards."

Arza subsequently recommended him for a local job with the state's insurance department. Sources within the department say Sanchez's hiring raised a few eyebrows given his employment history, but it was a "done deal."

Arza confirms that Sanchez is a "good friend" who helps him with various tasks, including advice. "Tony has an incredible law enforcement background," he says. "He helped me with the drag racing bill. He drafted the original language."

Did Arza help him get a state job? "I think I wrote a letter of recommendation for him," he allows. "I don't think they would hire somebody just because Ralph Arza recommended somebody."

Arza has also connected with like-minded politicos in the City of Miami, Coral Gables, Miami Beach, and other local municipalities who believe they would be able to do a better job of running the public schools within their borders than the school district does. They may get their wish. A bill he filed last year to allow cities of a certain size to convert their public schools to charter schools and operate them passed the House and stalled in the Senate. But the widespread talk among legislators and lobbyists in Tallahassee is that it could well pass this year.

So the school district is at a crossroads, with eventual control of it or dismantling of it a fluctuating possibility. Superintendent Merrett Stierheim is on his way out after three contentious years and the search is on to find his replacement. The once-powerful teachers union is struggling to regain legitimacy after the downfall of its spectacularly crooked leader, Pat Tornillo. Most significantly, at least five school board seats are open to challenge (six, if Marta Perez continues her bid for county mayor past June), with two or three newcomers expected to be elected this November.

The timing is right for a man who would be king to crown himself. Arza is poised. He's devising the game plan, positioning his players, psyching out the opposition. All the old lessons serve him well. "Arza's strategy is to launch five trains down the track and make you chase all five -- but only one is the real one," says a school district insider. "It's just like running a fake pattern in football."

In 2001 Arza persuaded Governor Bush to appoint a close associate, Frank Bolaños, to the school board after Demetrio Perez came under a federal indictment. He also orchestrated the successful 2002 school board campaign of his brother-in-law, Agustin Barrera. Another ally, Orlando Garcia, Jr., was appointed by the House Speaker to the state oversight board attempting to overhaul the district's business operations.

Arza has used Stierheim as a foil by painting him as a status-quo bureaucrat unwilling to take risks or listen to others. The enmity toward Stierheim in some circles (as evidenced by the acrimony originally accompanying his selection) has helped Arza form coalitions where none previously existed. Stierheim, an otherwise intelligent, capable manager, has unwittingly aided this effect by occasionally letting his ego and survival instincts get the better of him. "Merrett and I, we clashed," Arza says candidly. "He's pretty arrogant and he won't admit he doesn't know what he's doing. For the last three years, he had the opportunity and what did he do? He rearranged the furniture."

Stierheim responds: "I don't really care what he thinks. I'm very proud of what I've done. This organization desperately needed change and what we did was a whole lot more than rearranging the furniture."

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