Raul Martinez's Popularity Hits Bottom

Negative campaign ads quash the former Hialeah mayor's quest for Congress.

On Election Day, under a somber gray sky in Pembroke Pines, a line of voters snaked from the entrance of the Pembroke Shores Park gymnasium to the parking lot. A six-foot-four, paunchy, hazel-eyed Cuban-American walked the line, shaking hands as a cameraman from América TeVé recorded the scene. Dressed in a checkered dress shirt, dark brown slacks, and brown shoes, the candidate introduced himself. "Good morning, I'm Raul Martinez," he said to a smiling lady wearing a navy blue Obama T-shirt. "Thank you for voting today."

Nearby, two women holding McCain-Palin signs instantly recognized Martinez, a Democrat best known for his 24-year undefeated run as Hialeah mayor. One of the Republican campaigners, a thin woman named Carol Ann, wearing her wavy brown hair in a bun, wrinkled her face in disgust. "I can't stand him," she said, glaring at Martinez. "He's a bully and a dirty politician. Haven't you seen the ad where he is beating up that kid?"

Carol Ann's comments were portentous. Despite the Democrat's lead in polls scant weeks before the vote, incumbent Lincoln Diaz-Balart obliterated Martinez 58 to 42 percent. It was perhaps the most dramatic reversal in the most dramatic election in American history.

When Martinez returned from the Democratic National Convention in August, it seemed he had Diaz-Balart cornered. Martinez, whose rough-hewn style long personified the city, was considered a formidable threat. After all, his party, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi funneled support and money his way.

Martinez raised $1.7 million, according to campaign reports filed this past October 15, the most recent date available. Diaz-Balart had $2.1 million. A survey sponsored by Washington's Roll Call in late August showed Martinez up by two points. A month later, the Rothenberg Political Report rated the race a "Pure Toss-Up." The Huffington Post and New York Times pondered the end of the Diaz-Balart dynasty. (Lincoln's brother Mario also retained his seat in a close race against former Cuban American National Foundation chief Joe Garcia.) Even Miami New Times proclaimed the Diaz-Balarts would go down in defeat. We blew it.

One big reason: an expensive, Lee Atwater-style attack campaign that made the contest less about change and more about Martinez's scandalous past. A series of brutal, magnificently effective TV ads paid for by the congressman's re-election campaign and the Republican Party cited Martinez's 1991 conviction on racketeering and extortion charges and a 1999 confrontation in which the 275-pound politician repeatedly slugged a rail-thin 21-year-old butcher named Ernesto Mirabal.

Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen & Associates, a Coral Gables-based polling company, says the Martinez camp screwed up by allowing Diaz-Balart to define him. "When you run for Congress against an entrenched incumbent, it is up to the challenger to dictate the terms of the race," Amandi notes. "Unfortunately Raul never did that. He allowed the caricature Diaz-Balart painted of him to become cemented in the minds of voters. That was a fatal mistake."

Diaz-Balart spent ungodly amounts of money to make it happen. According to the October 15 reports, which are far short of total dollars, he and the GOP raised a combined $3.7 million. (The party gave the 16-year incumbent more than any candidate in the nation.) Between August 20 and September 30, the Republican paid $343,148 to the Victory Group, a Boston-based political consulting firm that produced ads that dredged up Martinez's corruption conviction — which was later overturned on appeal and then abandoned by federal prosecutors after two subsequent trials ended in a deadlock.

The damaging ad Carol Ann referred to appeared during the third week of October. It incorporated a 20-second news clip that showed Martinez throwing at least five punches to Mirabal's face and midsection as Hialeah Police officers attempted to pull him off. A female voiceover admonished him for "physically assaulting a defenseless young man and then lying about it so the man could be charged with the assault and sent to prison.... Appalling behavior. Martinez's conduct and record: horrifying." (Mirabal was arrested for battery on an elected official, but charges were dropped.)

Then, on October 30, came ex-Hialeah Police Capt. Bill O'Connell's denunciation of his former boss. In a 30-second ad, goateed O'Connell stands in a wooded area, looks straight at the camera, and says, "Raul Martinez is the poster child for everything that's wrong with politics. He would just yell and curse at his employees. He would belittle people. And he thinks he's better than all females. There's no humanity whatsoever in this man.

"The only reason Raul Martinez would beat up on a little kid on the Palmetto Expressway is because he had 50 police officers there to back him. Raul Martinez is the most corrupt politician you will ever see in your life."

The ads aired on every local TV station and cable news channels such as CNN and Fox News. They were broadcast during the morning, afternoon, and prime time. One showed right after a debate on CBS4 in mid-October. Martinez's attacks on Diaz-Balart paled in comparison.

The Hialeah mayor understood the potential damage, but his response was tepid and late. On October 30, after the ads had eroded his support for nearly two weeks, he called a press conference in front of the Hialeah Police Department to assail O'Connell's credibility. The standing-room-only event smacked of desperation. "This was a police officer that tried to steal from the city," Martinez said. "He was caught pretending to be red." (In fact Hialeah Police demoted O'Connell in 2004 after he was caught taking — and scoring well on — a physical fitness test for a job with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He was on disability leave at the time.)

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