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As political lightning rods go, the 59-year-old Bolaños seems particularly innocuous at first blush. As a teenager, he was president of a countywide social studies club. In college he cofounded FIU's Federation of Cuban Students. He delivers speeches in a monotone and has little talent for small talk. He dresses conservatively, favors cuff links, and wears a careful part in his thick gray hair.
A former Doral community councilman, Bolaños has sat on the school board since Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in 2001. The seat had been held by Demetrio Pérez Jr. until he was indicted for defrauding a government rent subsidy program. A relative newcomer to the political arena, Bolaños, a Republican, quickly earned a reputation as one of the board's more conservative voices, calling for greater local municipal control of schools and the district's division into smaller units. More recently he announced a run for state Senate in May and has proposed the largest school voucher program in the history of Florida and possibly the nation, while calling for potentially huge cash payouts to private schools and tutors.
Not one to shy away from the limelight, Bolaños has made a practice of appearing on Spanish-language radio shows and holding regular town hall meetings in his district, which includes Doral, Miami Springs, Allapattah, and parts of Hialeah. No one seemed to recognize Bolaños, though, when he recently ducked into a Starbucks in Coral Gables. He wanted to talk about his run for state Senate, and he wanted to talk about his story.
The son of a railroad workers' union leader in Cuba, Bolaños fled the island with his family when he was six. They packed up shortly after guerrilla forces swept into Havana in early 1959 "the year the world stood still," as Bolaños put it. Through connections at the Ecuadorian embassy, the family flew to Miami by way of Quito. Bolaños would never know Castro's Cuba.
Leaning back in his chair, Bolaños fingered his coffee cup's plastic cover as his eyes roamed the busy shop. While it was true, he said, that he'd grown up in an affluent neighborhood in Cuba and was the descendent of sugar cane barons, he was quick to add that his mother's family had been poor and his father's election to the national congress had been thwarted both by Batista in 1952 and then by Castro's rise.
Growing up in Miami, Bolaños slowly grew more interested in the country he had left at such a young age. "I think those of us who stay in touch with our roots are refreshed by the more recent arrivals," he said. While running a printing business, he started an anti-Castro magazine called Krisis.
As for his position on Vamos a Cuba, he insisted it has a simple basis. "It's adding insult to injury to use taxpayer dollars to buy propaganda," he said, repeating his recent mantra. Terms like censorship and banning have only distorted the real issue.
Whether litigating the issue is a wise use of funds it is estimated the case will cost the school board up to $300,000 in legal fees is beside the point. "Democracy is at work here, and it's working well," he said.
A few days later, Bolaños was not happy with the way democracy had worked: Federal judge Alan Gold had overturned the school board's ban of Vamos a Cuba. Bolaños immediately went back on the offensive. He called on the school board to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Bolaños's front-and-center stance in the Vamos a Cuba debate has made him and those around him obvious targets these days.
Witness the tirade launched by NBC 6's Ike Seamans, in the days after Bolaños came out in favor of banning Vamos a Cuba. In an e-mail obtained by New Times, the veteran correspondent wrote, "It is unbelievable how you pander to the aging and over-the-hill gang in this incredibly biased Cuban-American community. The younger generation of Cuban-Americans could care less and you know it."
Seamans wrote the messages unprovoked, saying he was responding as a citizen, not as a journalist.
He wondered why other immigrant groups have moved beyond the hardships in their home countries while "Cubans here seem to either have no ability or willingness to do so. Instead they make others pay because of the anxiety they feel about the homeland."
This, believe it or not, was Seamans in a diplomatic mood. In another e-mail, he called Bolaños an "absolute idiot ... grubbing for votes," and referred to his press officer, Michael Caputo, as an "insignificant terd [sic]." The latter comment was in response to a Caputo e-mail implying Seamans had lost his colleagues' respect and was surrounded by sycophants as he "preen[ed] and careen[ed] about town."
A political operative and head of his own public relations firm in Miami Beach, Caputo boasts credentials that include work on the presidential campaigns of George Bush Sr. and Jack Kemp, Boris Yeltsin in Russia, and rightist Alfredo Cristiani in El Salvador. So why is Caputo working on the campaign of an aspiring state senator? He says he joined Bolaños's campaign because he admired the candidate for showing "real stones" in taking up the fight against Vamos a Cuba.