By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
But for years the school district had been trying to buy some of the land to build three schools, finally resorting to the expensive eminent-domain process after Cayon refused to sell. According to the Miami Herald, in June 2003 Arza met with Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, school board member Agustin Barrera, and district staff at Hialeah City Hall. The politicians, all of whom have received campaign donations from Cayon, wanted the district to look elsewhere for school land.
At the district, Barrera tried to persuade the school board to reconsider its decision to force Cayon to sell, even though the land is not in his jurisdiction. Arza offered to change a state law preventing the construction of schools under flight paths near airports, which would open up more land for possible school sites. He filed a bill to that effect last month. That bill, if passed, could benefit another Arza campaign contributor, Fernando Zulueta, charter-school executive. Zulueta has filed an application to build a charter school in Doral, inside the "no-school zone" around Miami International Airport. County zoning staff and the aviation department see this as a potential public-safety problem because the school would be built only about a mile and a half from a busy runway. But they may have little say in the matter. The county's Developmental Impact Committee, which would normally approve or reject such a proposal, has granted its powers on this issue to the Doral City Council. If Doral approves it, and it's a good bet the city will, then it will go to the school board for a final approval.
In Tallahassee Arza has repeatedly introduced legislation that aggressively chips away at the school district's jurisdiction. Last year, for instance, he filed an unsuccessful bill allowing certain cities to convert public schools within their borders to charter schools and take control of them. This session he has filed a charter-school bill that would make it much easier for postsecondary institutions to sponsor their own charter schools, and also a bill that would require the Miami-Dade district to create a committee to examine its governance structure. Arza says he has in mind questions such as whether the district should be divided, whether there should be an elected superintendent, and whether some board members and a board chair should be elected at-large.
In addition he's now sponsoring a bill that requires school districts to develop initiatives to enhance reading. This sounds like a good idea. A close reading of the language, however, suggests that a handful of educational-materials companies would also benefit. The current bill requires the use of programs endorsed by the state education department; only a few companies, including Scholastic and Voyager Expanded Learning, have received the needed endorsement.
Arza took a leave from his $57,375 teaching position in late summer and picked up two consulting jobs. Miami City Manager Joe Arriola handed him a no-bid contract worth up to $25,000 to serve as a consultant on education matters. About the same time, Arza also accepted an invitation from Florida International University to be a "visiting lecturer" for nine months. The fee: $23,000. Arza makes $28,000 per year as a legislator. While some people may see these jobs as unethical conflicts of interest (taking money from a city and a university in need of his legislative help), he says there's nothing illegal about them.
Stories about ethically questionable conduct abound in the school district and in Tallahassee. One example: Arza's alleged heavy-handed relationships with lobbyists, several of whom have privately grumbled that even by Tallahassee standards, Arza is exceedingly demanding when it comes to favors such as tickets for special events and picking up the tab for large dinner parties at restaurants. But hard evidence is in short supply, mainly because government agencies that employ lobbyists normally don't require them to document expenses.
New Times asked Arza directly whether he pressures lobbyists for such favors. "No, never," he replied. "I don't think that's true. The only thing I've ever got is if there's a sponsored event. Lobbyists sponsor dinners in Tallahassee all the time and that's about it."
However, school district insiders say that one of the reasons the board consented to give lobbyist Ron Book a fat contract beginning in 2002 is that he agreed to include on his team an unlikely roster of other lobbyists, including Rick Rodriguez Pina, a Hialeah lobbyist close to Arza, and Al Lorenzo, a political operative known more for his ability to run phone banks and deliver absentee ballots than for his skill as a lobbyist. The contract is now worth $365,000, compared with the $120,000 per year the district used to pay for outside lobbying services.
By the end of May the school board will likely have chosen a superintendent. It very likely will not be Ralph Arza, but even if he can't credibly be made superintendent, he still might exert enough influence over the process that Stierheim's successor will be forced to recognize him as a political patron. Arza told the Herald recently that he wants the next superintendent to hire him for one dollar per year as a political advisor and liaison to municipal leaders. He told New Times he thinks he should have a role in determining who becomes the next superintendent: "I've invested enough time and sacrifice to have a say-so. How can you make a decision on a new superintendent and not involve the people who control 50 percent of the funding? It's arrogance."
Respected Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a member of the superintendent search committee, dismisses Arza's comments as being "like a Chinese language I don't comprehend." Arza, he insists, will have no effect on the committee's recommendation.
"Unbelievable!" remarks another member of the committee. "Who does this guy think he is?"