A Race About Race

It's Wednesday, October 23, and Humberto Hernandez is in his element at Robert King High Towers. The Cuban-American lawyer receives a rousing welcome as he arrives at the housing project near the Orange Bowl, where the second annual Hispanic Heritage Festival is in full swing. Nearly 900 elderly registered voters gyrate to salsa while the 34-year-old candidate for the Miami City Commission presses their politically active flesh.

"This senior center is one of the many in Miami that I have been walking for the last year and a half," he explains above the thump of the music. "I come at least three times a year. I break it in quarters, basically, and I come around and visit them. I sometimes come and raffle turkeys and presents and stuff. They like that. We entertain them with things, like I bring them fans and stuff like that."

In the cool shade of a large white tent, Hernandez shakes hands and kisses the smiling face of one woman after another. When he approaches a table near the back of the tent, two white-haired matrons leap out of their folding chairs to tattoo him with lipstick and tightly grasp his thumbs. A third woman shoves a paper plate full of yellow rice in his face and insists he eat. A campaign aide hands each woman a business card emblazoned with Hernandez's smiling mug and the ballot number they should punch to vote for him on November 5.

"I support him 100 percent," beams Aguda Castro, age 74. The Spanish-speaking native of Cuba who was a friend of Hernandez's great-grandmother believes Hernandez is the most qualified candidate in the upcoming election: "He's young, he's honest, he's very good-looking, and he's able to lead the city to a better future."

Seventy-two-year-old Amalia Cheda concurs. "I believe Humberto is the only person who could help Miami out of its financial ruin and be a good and honest leader," she pipes in Spanish. "I voted for him in the past; I'm not going to miss voting for him in this election."

Hernandez works the tent with a smoothness honed by nearly two years of uninterrupted -- if unsuccessful -- campaigning. He very narrowly missed a runoff when he tried to unseat incumbent Victor De Yurre in November 1995. (Joe Carollo was the eventual winner.) When Mayor Steve Clark died last summer and Carollo replaced him in the top post, Hernandez finished second in an election for Carollo's old commission seat. (The winner was radio commentator Tomas Regalado.)

Hernandez remains a strong political force despite carrying a suitcase full of ethics (and potentially criminal) charges. Hernandez confirms that the white-collar crime section of the U.S. Attorney's Office is conducting an investigation of his law practice. (He says the investigation pertains to one of his clients.) In 1994 Miami City Attorney A. Quinn Jones fired him from his job as an assistant city attorney because he was performing outside legal work on city time. (Hernandez admits he was performing the outside work but claims he was fired for purely political reasons.) Following the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in May, after Hernandez was accused of soliciting business from the mourning families of crash victims, the Florida Bar asked the state Supreme Court to suspend his law license and that of his law partner. (The Supreme Court declined the request but forbade the two lawyers to contact family members. Hernandez says the status of his license is now in the hands of the bar.)

While his opponents have hammered him on these charges, he has shown a remarkable ability to deflect the criticism. "The bottom line is I would not be running if these allegations were true," he protests. "I feel very confident that I have done nothing wrong, and I honestly know that I am the only person this community needs to represent them correctly."

Hernandez seeks the office now held by Rev. Richard Dunn. In September Dunn was appointed to replace Miller Dawkins, the commission's black mainstay who lost his seat after agreeing to plead guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges. In selecting Dunn, who finished third behind Regalado and Hernandez in the special election for Carollo's old seat, the commissioners made it clear they were interested in selecting only a black person to fill the seat that has been held by a black person for the past 29 years. Now that an African American is in office, each commissioner has promised to assist him in the election. "We in the Cuban community have matured enough to understand that in the City of Miami we need to have representation from every community," says Regalado. "The black community is the third biggest community in our city. I think they do deserve to be represented."

The problem for the sitting commissioners is that Hernandez has a good chance of winning. "If it comes down to Dunn and Hernandez, I figure Hernandez is going to win," says a veteran political consultant who is not involved with either candidate. Dunn and Hernandez are the most prominent of nine candidates entered in the race. "[County mayoral candidate Art] Teele has brought the blacks out twice, and Clinton brings them out a third time. I don't know if Dunn can bring them out a fourth time [for an expected runoff election between the top two vote-getters on November 5.]

The chance that black representation could be eliminated from the commission dais has riled many in the black community -- not the least of whom is Dunn himself. "It would send a message to blacks -- in particular those such as myself who have supported Hispanics against other black candidates -- that there is no reciprocity," preaches the incumbent. "It would hinder, impede, and probably sever any hopes of uniting this city. That's really what is at stake. It would jeopardize the city's very existence."

Dunn is campaigning against an opponent familiar with the impact of race on Miami elections. During the election for Carollo's old seat, Dunn held an early lead over Hernandez, but before the polls closed, Hernandez mobilized Hispanic voters. He was so successful that Dunn eventually finished third, behind Hernandez and Regalado. Hernandez, however, denies he played any ethnic cards. "I did urge the Hispanic community to go out and vote," he explains. "I did go to radio and say that we needed to go out and show that we are the largest voting bloc and that we need to vote more than anyone, but I never did use any kind of ethnic motivation."

Now that he is seeking the historically black seat, Hernandez's campaign theme is not ethnicity but his qualifications and experience. He reminds voters that he served on the city's code enforcement board, its zoning board, and the Latin Quarter review board. He is, he says, the only professional in the race; the fact that he is Cuban should not be a factor: "I think it is damaging to the electoral process to handpick somebody and say that this seat belongs to a black. Let the people choose who belongs in the seat." He adds that if elected he will push for district elections, which would virtually guarantee ethnic representation.

District elections are also supported by Dunn, as well as by Ted Lyons, another black in the race. The untested Lyons, a bureaucrat who has worked in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., raised more money than any other candidate during the initial reporting period. He, along with former Cuban radio personality Margarita Ruiz, hopes to shake up the race, stealing votes from both Dunn and Hernandez. Dunn still predicts he will win at least 90 percent of the black vote.

Dunn says he needs about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote to ensure his election. To help win those votes, he has stepped up his presence in the Hispanic community. At a recent commission meeting he volunteered to work with the Cubans in Little Havana's Domino Park. More recently he shouted, "Down with Castro!" at a campaign rally outside Versailles restaurant.

He even makes an appearance at the Robert King High Towers Hispanic Heritage Festival. While Hernandez methodically works the tent, Dunn stands near the performance stage talking to a campaign aide. "We've got some Dunn water bottles that are on their way," he informs the aide. "We're going to give them out, then we'll get some stickers passed around."

After some time waiting for the bottles to arrive, a Cuban woman approaches the commissioner to declare her support. "Vote for him!" she shouts, pointing at Dunn. "We need to be together!" Dunn laughs loudly, hugs the woman, and admires the pro-Dunn flyers she is handing out.

The woman is Mayor Joe Carollo's mother.
Over in the tent, the layers of lipstick emblazon Hernandez's cheeks. He has tried to reach out to the black community, he says, but he realized that these people, these elderly Cubans, are the ticket to his potential success. "I know that obviously the Hispanic voting bloc is so large and so strong, based on the percentage of turnout, that I honestly do not have to get one black vote or one Anglo vote to win this race.


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