Since taking over as president of the Latin Builders Association (LBA) last fall, Carlos Herrera has tried to chart a new direction for the powerful lobbying organization. He argues that over the past decade the LBA has lost sight of its real mission, which is to protect Dade County's construction industry -- an industry dominated by Hispanics. For Herrera and other members of the LBA board of directors, making sure the county's building boom continues unfettered is the surest way to guarantee the economic health of Dade's Latin community.
And to that end Herrera has a message for politicians accustomed to relying upon the LBA's largesse at election time but then voting consistently against the industry's interests: The free ride is over. "We are going to give to our friends and go against our enemies," he warns.
For too long, Herrera claims, the LBA has been willing to give to just about anyone, regardless of their past voting records. "They are not going to just come to us and ask for money," says Herrera. "That's not my way." Instead, he says, he will want to know what these candidates are willing to do for the industry. Herrera stresses, however, that the LBA will not expect that a politician will always vote the way the LBA would like him to A only a majority of the time.
Builders are unappreciated, Herrera says. The backlash against the construction industry following Hurricane Andrew has been severe and unrelenting. "It's like a bad word when you mention builders," he contends. "The LBA doesn't get any respect. We're the black sheep of the county."
Herrera joined the LBA eight years ago after being recruited by fellow developer Pedro Adrian. He was elected quickly to the organization's 32-member board of directors; his ascension to the presidency has been viewed by many as something of a coup, during which younger, more aggressive developers have wrested control of the group from its organizers.
"The LBA through the leadership of Carlos has changed a lot," says Camilo Jaime, an LBA vice president. "The LBA was basically stagnant. Now we are moving toward being more representative of our industry."
The most visible break was between Herrera and former president Sergio Pino. Herrera downplays any problems between the two men. "We had our tension way back," Herrera says. "I have the highest respect for Sergio, but he had a different way of running the organization. He used the organization on a more political basis."
As does Herrera. He guided the group during its recent battle against County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's proposal that would allow commissioners to demand two-thirds approval for some zoning changes. The measure was designed to control the type of reckless growth in unincorporated Dade that has left its schools overcrowded, its roads clogged, and its police force and social services stretched to the limit.
The LBA mounted one of its most aggressssive campaigns, in which Diaz de la Portilla was accused of being anti-Hispanic and a traitor to his own people. "It just made me sick," says the commissioner. "What they were trying to do was create fear and panic. They knew all along this wasn't an ethnic issue."
And while Herrera was not the most vocal opponent during this unsuccessful effort, Diaz de la Portilla asserts that Herrera does bear responsibility, particularly for the actions of the LBA's vociferous executive director, William Delgado. "The LBA engaged in a vicious, violent, mean-spirited, destructive, hateful, demagogic campaign against the two-thirds ordinance," Diaz de la Portilla states. "Mr. Herrera didn't engage in those personal attacks [but] William Delgado works for the board of directors of the LBA, and the head of the board of directors is Carlos Herrera."
Herrera makes no apologies for the LBA's actions. "I did what I had to do for my organization," he says. "I'm not a politician. I will tell you what I feel. Most people I know respect that."
Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Herrera earlier this year to the nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, and Florida Trend magazine recently named him one of the state's rising young leaders. "Carlos has a very dynamic personlity," says Delgado, who has been a friend of Herrera's for fifteen years. "He drives himself 24 hours a day toward whatever achievements he wants to gain in life. Carlos is less of a diplomat. Sometimes he is more outspoken that he needs to be."
Despite losing the battle over Diaz de la Portilla's "two-thirds ordinance," Herrera's influence over commissioners is impressive nonetheless. His greatest ally is Natacha Millan, a long-time personal friend who is also chair of the commission's powerful construction and utilities committee, which is responsible for, among other things, reviewing and writing ordinances relating to building codes. Last year Millan appointed Herrera's wife, Herminia, to the all-important Zoning Appeals Board. Millan says her friendship with Herrera has never unduly influenced her. "If it's not good for the county," she says, "he doesn't get my vote."
The power Herrera enjoys as LBA president has also clearly benefited his proposal to redevelop Homestead Air Force Base. Indeed the nexus between the LBA and Herrera's proposal is clear. LBA vice president Camilo Jaime, for instance is also a vice president and partner with Herrea in Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI).
Last November, when County Commissioner Katy Sorenson proposed a resolution to create an advisory committee to study the county's options regarding the air base, Delgado, representing the LBA, wrote every commissioner, declaring that Sorenson's measure "is a direct attack to [sic] the Latin and African-American communities." The letter went on to cite reports on Spanish-language radio suggesting that Sorenson's efforts were the first step in bringing to Florida Proposition 187 -- the anti-immigrant measure that had recently passed in California. Sorenson condemned the letter as scurrilous, but her resolution was derailed nonetheless.
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Herrera's view of Sorenson today: "She means well. She's got something against HABDI or me." Sorenson is no longer alone in challenging Herrera and HABDI's plan. Commissioner Dennis Moss, after being initially supportive, now says the commission made a mistake granting Herrera the exclusive rights to develop the property. "We should have looked at our alternatives," says Moss, whose district includes Homestead. "We should have opened the process up."
Such sentiments do not make Moss a popular figure among HABDI and LBA officials. It is widely believed that in addition to targeting Sorenson and Diaz de la Portilla as they come up for re-election, the LBA will challenge Moss as well, in 1996. An early potential opponent for Moss is Homestead City Councilman Steve Shiver, who is believed to have already received financial pledges from LBA officials. Shiver wouldn't discuss whether he has received offers from Herrera and other members of the LBA to bankroll his candidacy. "I'm not going to say," states Shiver. "I've had discussions with numerous people about the subject." Shiver says at this point he's not even sure he would want to run for the commission.
"Nothing surprises me," claims Moss. "But I'm prepared for all comers. I think I'm going to be able to raise some serious money, too. I didn't run for office to have a political career. I'm not here to do what may be politically astute. I'm here to do what I hope is right."
Counters Herrera: "The LBA was founded to defend and protect the Latin-American community, and that's just what we're going to do.