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

The year after Arza moved to Doral, the county commission launched its grand experiment in local zoning: the creation of community councils. Arza decided to run. He tied Pepe Cancio for a seat, an impasse Commissioner Miriam Alonso resolved by convincing Arza to concede, then using one of her two appointments to add him to the council. The council chose him for its chairman.

Jones, 65 years old, saw tremendous potential in Arza. The pair worked out an informal agreement whereby developers who wanted to get anything through the community council had to run it by the West Dade Federation first. "We struck up a good relationship," Jones says. "We worked hard to get schools out there, and a lot of good things."

Jones says Arza the councilman was the kind of politician who, if he believed in something, went after it full bore. "He can be a good consensus builder, and he can be a good foe," he allows. Jones felt his main task was almost that of a father keeping a wild but good-natured teenager in check.

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

Arza eventually bristled under the constraints: "He didn't trust me. He was unwilling to let go. I said, 'You're telling me it's my car but you won't give me the keys.'" At some point the tension between the two caused a rift. "There was a time for him to go his way and me to go mine," Jones shrugs.

Of course there was a little more to it than that. Some of the friction derived from the fact that the West Dade Federation was controlled largely by Anglos, and Arza wanted to build a Hispanic political base like one of his mentors, Hialeah's Raul Martinez. Political rivalries also increased the tension. Jones was allied with county Commissioner Miriam Alonso on Doral issues, and Alonso soon began to see Arza as a potential rival, especially after he joined league with her arch nemesis, Sweetwater Mayor Pepe Diaz. In fact, after the 2000 U.S. Census, Alonso made sure the boundaries of her newly redrawn district excluded the homes of both Diaz and Arza.

When Alonso was indicted on corruption charges, Governor Bush, with Arza's recommendation, appointed Pepe Cancio to fill her seat until the next election. Soon Cancio managed to have his district's boundary lines tweaked yet again -- this time to include the homes of Diaz and Arza.

While still on the community council, Arza began eyeing a couple of the legislative seats due to come open in the 2000 elections. He resigned from the council and moved his family north of Miami Lakes to run for the House seat left open by Luis Rojas, who was running for the state Senate. He raised more than $150,000, much of it from development-related companies, and swept to victory. He also found time that June to walk Marisleysis Gonzalez, cousin to Elian, into Miami High School and ask the principal to give her a short-term job. The principal complied.

Although his legislative district doesn't include Doral, Arza has kept his hand in the local politics. He affiliated himself with (some say created) a group called One Doral, a rival to the West Dade Federation that formed in 2001 to give Hispanics more voice in Doral affairs. In this small pond, Arza was a big fish, and convincingly established himself as a kingmaker. Felipe Madrigal, a stocky Costa Rican who owns a first-aid supply company in Doral, was a member of the group and says Arza became the undisputed, if behind-the-scenes, padrón. "Ralph is a powerhouse," he advises. "Ralph can get you money. He will obligate you to him. He's very politically astute. In a way, I admire the guy because he's a brilliant strategist."

One Doral ran a slate of candidates for the community council in 2002. They won, a victory that marked the near complete domination of Hispanic political power in the area. Madrigal remembers the group celebrating at Tony Roma's on election night, when Arza suddenly picked up his cell phone and dialed. "He called the people who lost and we played that song: 'Nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey goodbye!' Man, he's intense."

In 2002 Arza also worked heavily on the successful school board campaign of his brother-in-law Agustin Barrera, a campaign that drew the support of Joe Arriola, who had decided to put his considerable influence behind his vociferous complaints about the school board. During the heat of the battle, Arza's intense personality made headlines when he got into a brief shoving match with Carlos Manrique, then a school district lobbyist campaigning for incumbent Manty Morse.

"Part of my personality is, I will go out of my way to pick a fight," Arza acknowledges. "That is wrong and I struggle with it. Sometimes I don't know when to quit. Sometimes I'm like a walking contradiction -- I pray and then I go out and want to tear somebody's head off."

Arza is also not above using his position to benefit developers rather than students. Last year he attempted to stop the school district from taking land from a developer by eminent domain in order to build schools in congested Hialeah Gardens. The city council had earlier approved a large development project over the objections of neighbors, citing an offer by the developer, Maurice Cayon, to build a charter school to ease crowding. The council also approved doubling the density of the land, which greatly increased its value.

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