Raul Martinez's office in exile is about three blocks from Hialeah City Hall, on the ground floor of a pink-hued building on East First Avenue. He's got a glass-topped desk here, and a leather couch. The scattershot decor includes maps of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, a Haitian painting propped up on a chair, and an array of fancy whiskey bottles, cardboard displays, and promotional materials related to his current position as general manager of sixteen South Florida Checkers liquor stores. Although Martinez has been working out of this office for more than two and a half years, the look of the place is temporary, and to the occupant, so is the feel. After next week's mayoral election, Martinez plans on moving three blocks to the north.

The man who many believe once had the inside track on becoming the first Cuban-born member of the U.S. Congress was suspended as mayor of Hialeah in April 1990, after he was indicted on federal charges that he extorted nearly one million dollars in cash and property from developers in exchange for zoning approvals that benefited their projects. When he was convicted on six of those eight charges in March 1991, many wrote "Finis" to what appeared to be a classic American success story.

But Martinez says it's not the end. A week away from the election, mayoral candidate Raul Martinez is running as a convicted felon, facing ten years in prison, the nominal incumbent who has been prohibited from having anything to do with Hialeah's official business for the past three and a half years.

Nonetheless, he is expected to win.
How is that possible? "Because," answers Martinez, "people are saying, 'This guy was framed.' No one has ever doubted my management abilities. People might say, 'Maybe he did something outside of government. But he never neglected the city.'"

At age 44 Raul Martinez is a big guy, six foot, three inches, 250 pounds. But he's out of shape, ballooning around the middle, and as he drinks a mid-afternoon cup of cafe cubano from behind his desk, his handsomeness takes on a soft, overfed look. He's a Latino Elvis Presley. As cutthroat and nasty as Hialeah politics can be, Martinez is no brawler. He doesn't throw punches, or look like he could take one. But he does go toe-to-toe verbally, in Spanish or English, with opponents who accuse him of being a sloppy manager, or as a relatively rare Cuban-American Democrat, soft on communism, or who call him a crook who should hide in shame and stay in the liquor business.

After a recent run-in with his chief opponent, Nilo Juri, at radio station WQBA, Juri said Martinez was crazy and accused the suspended mayor of spitting in his face. During an on-air debate, Juri says, Martinez supporters standing in the studio flashed him the finger, and one man pulled back his jacket to reveal a pistol stuck in his waistband. "These were thugs, and this is exactly what he has been convicted of: extorting people," Juri charges.

"It never happened," scoffs Martinez, suggesting with this dismissal that if he really had launched any saliva in Juri's direction, he would have drowned the man.

"Yes, we did have a lot of words," Martinez says. "But if the spitting had happened, why didn't he take the handkerchief and clean his face, or why didn't he punch me? He called the Herald. He wanted to be the victim."

During a forum last week at Miami-Dade Community College, another of his four opponents, acting Mayor Julio Martinez, in a reference to Raul's past, told the audience, "I can't tell my kids not to steal if I'm a thief." Raul Martinez shook his head and charged that his successor was bankrupting the city with poor management and a lack of leadership.

As abashed as he was by his conviction ("I was a household word in Dade County," he says, "I hurt, I've cried"), Martinez prides himself on maintaining a public presence while in exile from office. He makes the rounds of Hialeah restaurants and coffee shops; he shops at Westland Mall. People still call him "Mayor" and give generously to his campaign fund, which tops $140,000. Attorneys' fees from both his trial and his appeal have totaled one million dollars, Martinez says, and constituents, including many developers, have gladly donated half of that.

Most evenings his campaign headquarters in a one-time video store is crowded with volunteers. In fact, the campaign received so many requests for yard signs that Martinez says he cut it off at 1100. The results of an independent poll of 400 voters released this past week show Martinez beating his challengers handily. Why? Because 39 percent of those questioned don't believe he's guilty, and an even higher percentage don't seem to care anyway. In response to the statement, "As a convicted felon, Raul Martinez is unqualified to be mayor," 43 percent disagreed. (Martinez has survived two recent efforts to have him thrown off the ballot. But this Thursday, October 28, an appeals court will convene an emergency hearing to resolve the matter.)

In 1989, running for re-election while under federal investigation, he still emerged victorious. This year, in a projected runoff with Nilo Juri, the Rob Schroth poll for the Herald and WLTV (Channel 23) found Martinez would get 46 percent to Juri's 38 percent, with 11 percent undecided.

"People just don't think he was guilty," says state Sen. Roberto Casas, a Hialeah Republican who served as Martinez's campaign treasurer in 1989. "He is getting more support than previously. He did a good job as mayor. I have no doubt he'll be re-elected."

Adds Hialeah Councilman Alex Morales: "He has a personal charisma and a large group of loyalists who are almost fanatical in their love for him."

Even many of Martinez's rivals acknowledge his popular appeal. Julio Martinez, who is not related and who likely will get thumped next Tuesday, explains it this way: "The Cuban people are accustomed to dictators. Raul is tall; he even looks like [former Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista. He has that macho image, and people like to have a boss no matter how bad he is.

"He should be in jail. If he didn't have money, he would be right now," Juri adds, referring to the fact that Martinez remains free on bond.

Juri, a former state representative who narrowly lost the mayor's race to Martinez in 1989, says this: "In Cuba and other Central American nations, it was tolerated for a politician to make money while in office, without working. If the people of Hialeah knew the things Raul Martinez has whispered in my ears over the past few years, he would not get elected. It is filthy. Right now he is a crook, a criminal, a convicted felon. How can you send the fox to take care of the chickens? If it happens, it is very sad for the city. We will be the laughingstock."

Born in Cuba in 1949, Martinez came to Miami with his family in 1960, worked after school at a gas station, with his father founded a weekly newspaper, El Sol de Hialeah, took a degree in criminal justice from Florida International University in 1977, and that same year was elected to the city council of Florida's fifth-largest city.

Four years later he became the predominantly Hispanic city's first Hispanic mayor. Although Martinez was a self-styled Hubert Humphrey Democrat caught in the middle of the Reagan years, talk about the personable mayor's likely assent to national politics began almost immediately. And he didn't mind. "I really would have liked to have been the first Cuban-born congressman," he says. "Then, when the Democrats took the White House, maybe a post as ambassador somewhere. I could never be President [because he was not born in the U.S.], but I could have headed a department in the federal government, then returned to Florida for a statewide job. But A"

But it didn't happen.
Instead of being in Washington today as part of the Clinton Administration, Martinez is fighting for some redemption, both in the federal court of appeals and with the voters.

What happens if you lose the election?
If I lose the election, I will not feel rejected. I think the support I've gotten so far, with all the problems I've had, whatever votes I get I'm going to be very happy with. It would not be a rejection of Raul Martinez.

But how else to explain it?
I would explain it by saying that I still have a pending case, that people might have had certain concerns over that case, and I have to accept that. If there was no pending case, and the people reject you, then that's the time you have to say, "Okay, goodbye, I'm out of politics." But you've seen a lot of comebacks; a lot of people have run for public office, lost, and then come back.

But you've said you don't hear about many people afraid to support you.
I'm sure it's there, but people just don't tell you. You imagine that it's there. I'd be a fool to think that would not be out there. It's human nature. I can't say to you, "Everybody out there loves me." You want it that way, but it ain't gonna happen.

So despite what the polls are saying, are you preparing yourself to be upset November 2?

If the will of the people is expressed with a positive vote, I'll be very happy. But if it's negative, I'm not going to be as happy. But you know what? I'm going to go back to doing what I'm doing, and feel that I tried, gave it my best shot, and just didn't win.

And what becomes of you then?
I don't know what's going to happen. I've never planned my political life. But I could be a TV or radio commentator. I would like to do something on the radio, community politics. I've toyed with the idea of a half-hour show, bring in guests, burning issues, how can we do it better.

But you suspect you won't have to deal with it just yet?
You never know. I hope the people will get up on Tuesday morning and say, "We'd like to bring him back."

Martinez says he thinks the criminal case against him was in part a personal vendetta directed by then acting U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen. When long-time U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper died in 1989, Martinez was, as he puts it, "riding high." He had been elected unopposed to a second term in 1985, a year later he merited a mention in Esquire magazine as someone to watch, and in 1987 and 1988 he was elected president of the Dade League of Cities and then the Florida League of Cities. Pepper's seat beckoned.

But Pepper's place in Congress also looked good to Lehtinen's wife, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Martinez's attorneys alleged that Lehtinen revived a stalled investigation into the mayor's land dealings, making him "a target of the order to neutralize him as a competitor of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for Claude Pepper's congressional seat."

Ros-Lehtinen won the seat in the fall of 1989, beating Democrat Gerald Richman.

The criminal case against Martinez was complex, and was based in large part on the testimony of two unindicted co-conspirators, Antonio Cardona and Silvio Cardoso, both former Hialeah officials. According to prosecutors, Martinez grew rich during his years in office by coercing developers into selling him chunks of property before zoning changes upped the value markedly.

In 1988 Cardoso, a councilman, pleaded guilty to illegally obtaining FBI files, and in exchange for a lighter sentence, agreed to cooperate with the government. He testified to paying Martinez more than $100,000 in three housing project deals.

Martinez admits he made mistakes, especially in trusting Cardoso, his strongest ally on a divided city council. "I needed Cardoso," says Martinez. "And when he got in trouble, he took me down."

Martinez claims he was naive. While mayor he continued to work as a real estate developer himself, supplementing his $75,000 annual mayor's salary by amassing a small fortune. He says everything was aboveboard, but he appreciates now that in the big-money, small-town negocios of Hialeah, where friendships and favors count for so much, the line between quid and quo can become blurred. A jury found Martinez guilty, he says, because they were confused -- as he was -- about the intentions and expectations of people he dealt with. "When someone comes to you, who knows what they are thinking?" he asks. "If you find a machine that reads people's minds, it would be great."

In the event he is elected, Martinez says this: "In all probability, I will not get involved in real estate again in the city of Hialeah as long as I'm a public official."

Could you have won Claude Pepper's seat in Congress?
I probably had a good shot at it. But you know, it didn't happen, it didn't happen. So what are you going to do, go in the corner and cry? You just go on.

Why didn't it happen?
I think that it was not meant to happen. You just don't cross the railroad tracks when the train is coming, challenging that, because you might get killed. But I believe in destiny. In that instance, I have my ideas, and I keep those to myself, because I can't prove it. But to dwell on the negative, on what could have been, it eats you inside, and I don't want anything eating me inside. I want to be as I was before. Period.

You have your theory about what happened. What can you say about it?
I want to get through the appeal. Then I hope I can go through records, and people who have more information than I do would be willing to come forward.

You want to do your own investigation?
Journalists have more information than they've released. I'd like to sit down with them. Basically the reason I'd like to put it together is for my two kids. The State Attorney's Office investigated me on all these things, and I was cleared. I asked for a copy of the close-out report. It's never been made public; I've never given it to the media. But I have that report in my house, and I showed it to my kids, where it exonerated me of all the things that happened afterwards.

Why not publish it?
I just wanted to give it to my family.
Why is it significant for you to show it to your children?

Because at the time, for a year and a half, there were a lot of allegations, innuendos, and once they got cleared, I just basically went to them. Actually, I didn't go to them and sit them down and say here it is, but it's there for them to read when they want to. You just wait for one day when they ask. They'll say, "Dad, is it true?" You know it's bound to happen one day, and when that time comes, you say, "Here it is."

To my knowledge the presentence investigation -- only I and my attorneys saw it. I could not even share that with my wife. But that was a hell of a glowing report. I wish I could show that to the world.

But that report was made before you got ten years. Do you think that mitigated the sentence?

Nah. The sentence was going to be handed down.
Campaigning now, do people ask specifics about the criminal charges?
Not that much. In fact, in many instances, I prompt the discussion. I like to bring out that if they have any questions about the convictions, the time, the appeal, I like to bring it to the floor because I don't have to hide it. Let's bring it out in the open.

Most of the time the people are nice enough not to discuss it. Believe me, it's something I don't like to talk about. That's something you're not proud of.

But when someone does say, "Mayor, you were convicted of these charges. Did you do it? Are you guilty?" What do you say in response?

First of all, I did not do it. Second of all, if I was not convinced that I could win this on appeal, because of all the irregularities, things that happened during the case, during the investigation, during the deliberations of the jury, I would not be offering myself to be mayor again. If I felt for one minute that I did any of the things I was accused of, I would not be running. I would be fading away as far as possible, and maybe they'll forget about me, that will be the end of my life, my public life, and I will live happily ever after. But I didn't do it.

During the campaign, does that question come up often, where you have to give that answer?

Basically the question that people have had is whether or not I can take office. They've been harping on the fact that I can't run, and I have proved them wrong. Second, they said, "If I get elected, could I be sworn in?" And I keep saying, "Yes, yes I can, that's the law." And the third is, "If you do get elected and you get sworn in, is the governor going to suspend you again?" I say to that, "I don't know what the governor is going to do." But I feel very strongly that if I get elected, the governor, being the democratic person he is, is not going to go against the will of the people.

Can you take office again?
If you look at the law, I don't think the governor can suspend me. If you read the law, the law says the governor can only suspend a public official for a mischief committed during the term. If I get elected November 2, or November 9 if there's a runoff, and I get sworn in November 12, what mischief have I committed that the governor can suspend me on? I haven't done anything. Because whatever mischief from one term doesn't carry over to the next. That's the law.


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