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

Besides playing games with the dysfunctional relationship between Stierheim and the school board, Arza is offering support to current candidates for the board, hoping to knit together a coalition of at least five reliable votes out of nine. "Right now we're building a political team," Arza explains. "We've got people we've helped get elected. It's the same thing [as building a football team]."

It pays to be on the team. Some of his friends have made money in the education field while he's been a legislator, although Arza denies he had anything to do with their good fortune. His younger brother, Eddy Arza (at various times an assistant football coach, a private investigator, and a timeshare condo salesman), now works as a regional salesman for Scholastic, Inc., a major educational-materials company with a Miami-Dade school district contract. Arza's good friend Rolando Rodriguez, an occupational specialist at Barbara Goleman High School, preceded Eddy Arza at Scholastic, then moved on to a position with Voyager Expanded Learning, Inc., another educational-materials company. (Rodriguez does have some sales experience. He spent several years managing a shoe store in the Eighties.)

Arza says his brother moved back to Miami from Arizona to be close to their mother when their father passed away in 2002. He describes both brother and friend as "gifted" salesmen who got their jobs on their own merits. "I would never interfere and never have made a phone call to help Rolando make a sale or my brother make a sale," he says. "If the product they're selling is not a good product, then the district should not buy it."

Jonathan Postal
Three characters in the Miami education soap opera 
(from top): Schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim, 
lobbyist Ron Book, and school board member Frank 
Cobo
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Three characters in the Miami education soap opera (from top): Schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim, lobbyist Ron Book, and school board member Frank Cobo

Notes Dario Moreno, a Florida International University professor and long-time observer of Miami politics: "[Arza] has demonstrated a great deal of political power, but he has become a lightning rod, and some people question his motivations. The worst-kept secret in town is he wants to be superintendent."

Moreno adds that he believes Arza's impulses are probably both personal and philosophical: "I don't think you strive for something as quixotic as school reform unless you are a true believer. But he's also a shrewd politician. He understands the uses of power. He's made himself Mr. Education in Tallahassee. I think no matter what, you're going to be dealing with Ralph Arza for a long time to come."

Indeed Arza plans to be around awhile. He says he's considering applying for the superintendent's job, which is his heart's desire. But it would mean giving up his self-created niche in Tallahassee. "When I look at the district, where it is today, I say, 'If you've got the guts to criticize it and get an oversight board in there, then have the guts to try to lead it,'" he elaborates. "But do I want to make that sacrifice? It's a tough question. That's my dilemma."

It's not so much a question for Arza as it is for the nine members of the school board. Do they want a former coach and teacher with no experience running a large and complex organization? Regardless of the answer, there's no way Arza would apply for the top job without knowing in advance that he owned at least five votes. And that seems unlikely.

At the moment, the board members and the panel of respectable citizens they appointed to winnow the field of candidates seem to be taking the search process seriously. "We have a little window of opportunity," says board member Marta Perez. "I think it's the last great hope of the district to get this right."

It's worth noting that several members of the search committee have a vested interest in keeping Mr. Education happy. FIU president Mitch Maidique, MDC president Eduardo Padrón, and Florida Memorial College president Albert Smith are all governed to a degree by a legislative process greatly influenced by Arza; Miami Mayor Manny Diaz has used Arza to push legislation that would give him control over city schools; and Pinecrest Mayor Evelyn Greer is running for the school board.


To know who Rafael "Ralph" Arza is, you have to know who he was. "I'm just a poor little kid that grew up on the north side of the Orange Bowl," he says jovially, offering up a chestnut from the extensive Arza collection.

His is a classic story from the Miami diaspora. The Arza family fled Santiago de Cuba in the mid-Sixties, settled in Little Havana, and slowly built a new life. Arza's dad, Rafael, owned and operated a lunch truck; his mother Nidia worked in a local clothes factory; Arza and his younger brother Eddy grew up rough-and-tumble and both played football at Miami High. After graduating, Ralph floated for a while, pursuing a college degree (he eventually got one from FIU) while coaching under the heads at Jackson High and Homestead High.

He married a Little Havana girl, Eris Barrera, when both were 21 years old. His new brother-in-law, Agustin Barrera, thought his sister could do better. "I was a pretty rough guy," Arza admits. "I had left his sister for another girl and his family saw I had hurt her. He didn't want his sister to marry me, and as he was walking her down the aisle he said, 'You know, it's not too late.'" But the match seems to have worked out. The couple have five children ages three to eighteen.

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