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By Christmas, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Seijas's reign could be over. A band of rebels threatens her imperial grip.
Last month the anti-Seijas commandos set up a bunker in the heart of her Hialeah stronghold. From inside a warehouse near Okeechobee Road, they plot ways to convince voters to recall the 69-year-old on December 19.
The insurgency identifies itself as the Committee for Positive Change, but until recently it operated under a more audacious title: Committee for the Recall of Miami-Dade Commissioners. It comprises 25 activists who earned their stripes fighting a commercial airport at the former air force base in Homestead, opposing dynamite-blasting and rock-mining in West Miami-Dade, preserving landmarks like the Hialeah Racetrack, and halting development near the Everglades.
Seijas describes them simply as "people I despise."
On a recent evening outside the rebels' bunker, a slender Cuban-American fellow with a boyish grin puffed on a Marlboro Light near his dark red Ford pickup truck. Miami Lakes resident Luis Sanchez is in a way the perfect frontman for the movement. A 45-year-old, he was arrested for civil disobedience in 2000 when he blocked the entrance to the Port of Miami with his truck to protest the federal government's seizure of Elián González. The charges were subsequently dropped.
He has, let's just say, some complaints about Seijas. "She's never done anything about the rock miners," Sanchez groused in a gravelly voice. "I've got all these cracks in my walls and my driveway from the blasting. And she's just a mean person. The only way she gets things done is through harassment and intimidation."
Recalls in Miami-Dade are about as common as skunk ape sightings in the Everglades. In fact Seijas, who declined to comment for this story, is the first county commissioner to face such a vote since 1972, when citizens removed Commissioners Robert Hardy Matheson, Alex Gordon, Earl J. Carroll, and Ben Shepard after they refused to build a promised public hospital.
Seijas has done everything possible to undermine the recall; she has relentlessly accused petitioners of forgery and deception. And she has apparently called in political chits. Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and Miami-Dade Police union president John Rivera have supported her. Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin at first declared the recall petition invalid, but a judge overturned his decision. She has even cadged cops and state prosecutors into intimidating the rebels under the guise of a fraud investigation. "It is the closest thing to a police state," comments activist Pat Wade.
The pol has also played the race card with the precision of a Texas hold 'em world champion. This past May, on Spanish-language TV station Telemiami 41, Seijas said her enemies were "anti-Cuban." "These are a bunch of racists from South Dade who don't want us in power," Seijas rattled. "They want everything for themselves. People really need to be careful about opening their doors. They will do anything, including lie to you about being my friend, to get your signature."
The battle has spilled over into an even more significant war regarding the county's future. A month after deciding the commissioner's fate, voters will return to the polls January 23 to choose whether to radically expand county Mayor Carlos Alvarez's powers, giving him control over the hiring and firing of department heads as well as running county government day-to-day.
Seijas is the mayor's number one opponent. She recently led the county commission's charge to hire lawyers, at taxpayer expense, to fight the strong-mayor petition. And on November 29, she suggested cutting the mayor's salary from $229,083 to $12,000. (She later backpedaled.)
Responds Alvarez: "Quite frankly I am just fed up with her. This ... was extremely childish. She's like the kid who loses something and she has to get back at the person who won."
Then he adds, "She tried so hard so the citizens of this county couldn't vote."
It was a few minutes past 1:00 p.m. this past November 14, and Seijas had just adjourned a committee meeting. She sauntered through the narrow corridor leading from the chamber to the commissioners' offices at the Stephen P. Clark Center.
The Cuban-American matron, dressed in a snappy tan business suit, was shadowed by her chief of staff, Terry Murphy. Scowling as she often does, the commissioner carefully tended to her left arm, which was wrapped in a cast and a sling.
A reporter asked if recall PAC spokesman Michael Pizzi, a Miami Lakes councilman whom Seijas suspects of coveting her commission seat, had anything to do with her fractured limb. "Believe me, Pizzi would have more than a broken arm if he tried putting a finger on me," she retorted.
But she didn't want to answer questions about the recall. "I never get a fair shake," Seijas complained. "I'm getting blamed for all of the problems in Miami-Dade County."
Born and raised in Havana, where she earned an arts degree in design from the University of Villanueva, Seijas emigrated to Miami in 1959. She has three children and three grandkids. She is divorced from Roberto Millan.
There's little in the public record of her first few decades in the United States. In 1981 she took a job at Switchboard of Miami, a family crisis assistance organization, fielding calls on the suicide prevention hotline. After ten years there, she went to work for the YMCA of Greater Miami.