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

In 1985 Arza got his dream job as head coach of the Miami High football team. He was only 25 years old and the first Cuban American head coach in the county. There he reversed the Stingarees' long losing streak through a coaching style one Herald writer described as "[demanding] a type of intensity from his players that borders on the maniacal."

Arza saw the team's success as a vindication of the Cuban community, which had come to dominate the school in the previous two decades but hadn't produced a solid winning season since the late Sixties. "They said the Cubans couldn't win at football," he recalls. "I had a chip on my shoulder. Winning at Miami High was a mission."

He also developed a reputation for being adept at psychological warfare. One year his Stingarees beat Palmetto High with three seconds left in the game. The Panthers spent the next year reliving that defeat, using it as a battle cry for their future matchup with Miami. When that day finally arrived, the Palmetto team streamed onto the field to see the score from last year's game on the board, with the clock set at three seconds. Classic Arza.

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

"I believe in the psychology of things," he says. "In competition you always want to be looking ahead. But if I can get somebody to look back instead of forward, I've got the advantage."

In 1989 that advantage evaporated. A potential championship season was wiped out when it was discovered that an ineligible player was on the Stingarees' roster. The nineteen-year-old senior was 40 days too old, forcing Miami High to forfeit seven victories and a district title. Arza left the program at the end of that school year. He continued to teach but seemed restless -- picking up a couple of brief jobs coaching at private schools, creating a program for inner-city youth, moonlighting as an Amway salesman, and starting various consulting businesses.

Arza inherited his interest in politics from an uncle, Hugo Arza, who was deeply involved in Cuban-exile politics. He was a member of the Cuban Patriotic Junta, a coalition of some 100 exile organizations once headed by Tony de Varona. "My uncle got me involved in city politics at a young age," Arza recounts. "Xavier Suarez, Maurice Ferré -- I knew all those guys." He also got to know other movers and shakers closer to his age, notably Humberto Hernandez.

Hernandez was a lawyer for the city who later became Cuban Miami's favorite political son as a city commissioner, even after he was convicted on bank-fraud charges and linked to massive voter fraud. Arza showed up at Hernandez's trial in 1998, along with several other friends, including Orlando Garcia, Jr., and Benigño "Benny" Pereda.

Pereda, then a zoning consultant, was charged later that year with extorting a bribe from a Little Havana bar owner in exchange for zoning favors and having police look the other way. Pereda also admitted to the Herald that he slipped payments to Miami city workers in return for being allowed to illegally alter property-tax records.

Orlando Garcia, who told the Herald in 1998 he was "like a brother" to Hernandez, got a piece of a lucrative garbage-recycling contract negotiated by Hernandez when he was an assistant city attorney. Garcia was a liquor salesman with no experience in waste management. The contract was later revealed to be a boondoggle.

Garcia, now 33 years old, is one of Arza's long-time pals (he was a member of Arza's wedding). Known as Landy to his friends, Garcia is considered by some to be Arza's political strategist and occasional bagman. "The first year [Arza] was in the legislature, he would make everyone go through Landy if they wanted to talk to him," recalls former school board member Manty Morse.

Today Garcia works for the engineering firm Petro Hydro and sits on the oversight board the legislature imposed on the school district after a 2001 scandal over questionable land purchases. He also sits on the City of Miami's Sports and Exhibition Authority.

Arza's first shot at a public office came in 1996, when he made an unsuccessful bid for the school board. It was the first time county voters would choose school board members by district, and because the number of board seats would increase from seven to nine, at least two of those new districts would have no incumbent. Arza took aim at an uncontested district that included the Doral neighborhood. He failed to make the cut in a crowded primary, but he found a new home.

"I had decided to run for school board, so I went out to find a house in the district and couldn't afford it," he says. "But there was a person willing to sell a house in Doral at a good price and we moved in, and that's when I met Jesse and all these guys."

Jesse Jones, along with Morgan Levy and other community activists, had filled a power vacuum in the amorphous and fast-growing Doral area. In 1989 the two founded the West Dade Federation of Homeowners Associations in an attempt to control the development feeding frenzy and to block unsavory industries, such as prisons, from coming to their neighborhoods.

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