Those who know Demetrio Perez say they rarely see the man, publicly or privately, without a suit and tie. Whatever else his critics and his supporters say about him, no one can deny the Miami-Dade County School Board member and private school kingpin is a snappy dresser.
Still, he will drop the semiformal attire for a special occasion, such as the April 29 rally on SW Eighth Street in Little Havana to protest the federal government's forcible removal of Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle's home. As the massive crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, milled about, waved Cuban and other flags, and brandished anti-Castro, anti-Clinton, and anti-Reno placards, many of them were treated to an unusual sight: Demetrio Perez, his bald, perpetually ruddy pate shining in the sun, walking down Calle Ocho in a T-shirt.
It wasn't just any T-shirt. On the front it bore the red, white, and blue shield (based upon the Cuban flag) of Lincoln-Martí Schools, the chain of bilingual private schools founded by Perez's father in 1968. Below the shield were emblazoned the words, «Elian, niño milagro, miracle child.» On the back was a silkscreen black-and-white photo of Elian himself wearing the uniform of Lincoln-Martí Schools, which he attended for much of his brief sojourn in Miami.
And Perez was not alone. With the assistance of Lincoln-Martí faculty, he shepherded a phalanx of Elian's classmates through the parade. Each of the adorable little tykes was wearing the «niño milagro» T-shirt, and they carried a banner declaring Lincoln-Martí Schools to be «la escuela de Elian.»
These images of Perez and the children smiling and waving were featured prominently in the pages of Libre, the free weekly newspaper published by Perez. Most of that week's issue was devoted to the rally, including photos of the keynote speaker, Armando Perez-Roura of Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), perhaps the most powerful opinion-maker of el exilio's old guard. Of course Perez-Roura also has a weekly column on the inside front page of Libre. And of course Demetrio Perez also has a daily talk show on Mambí. Thus nearly everyone whose opinion matters to Perez will know who was the educational benefactor of little Elian.
«He does things sometimes that are offensive to the American mainstream, because his paradigm is not American, it's Cuban,» says Maurice Ferre, who served as mayor of the City of Miami while Perez was a city commissioner in the Eighties, and who also considers himself a friend. «He's like a ward politician in Havana from the Thirties or Forties. He's a man out of time and out of place, in the wrong country and the wrong century.»
As Elian Gonzalez continues to be the 50-pound gorilla dominating public discourse in this election year, no sitting politician or candidate has lost so little and gained so much from the niño milagro's presence as has Demetrio Armando Perez, Jr. During his first three and a half years on the school board, he has striven to remake the public schools in the image of his own chain of private schools, which, thanks to Perez's guidance and authorship of a textbook, are steeped not only in Falwellesque «family values,» but in explicit anti-communist ideology. He pushes for uniforms, supports drug testing, agitates for school prayer, tries to beef up school security. All are measures that endear him to his overwhelmingly Hispanic Republican constituency.
His October arrest for trying to bring two loaded pistols into an airplane at Miami International Airport was ironic on many levels. On the one hand, the fact that he was armed (and carrying his concealed-weapons permit) fits in nicely with the Charlton Heston wing of his party of choice. On the other, the fact that the guy trying to legislate security in schools runs afoul of the sort of checkpoint he wants to institute is just comical. And once again he's given the English-language media (and some in the Spanish-language media as well) an opportunity to deride him as a potentially dangerous clown.
Of all the negative press he's received over the years, the fallout from the gun-toting incident seems to have shaken his usual unflappability. In recent months his fellow board members have noticed a deafening silence from his seat on the dais. Almost without fail at each monthly school board meeting during his tenure, Perez would read one lengthy, prepared speech on an issue of particular interest to him, be it closing campuses during lunchtime, supporting school uniforms, or pushing for mandatory drug testing. G. Holmes Braddock, a school board member since 1962 who will not be running for re-election this fall, wryly refers to these proclamations as «epistles.» He wonders why several recent meetings have been epistle-free.
Perez himself has offered no explanation. He did not return numerous phone calls from New Times to both his school board office and the offices of Lincoln-Martí Schools, seeking comment for this story. It could be he's been preoccupied with his legal troubles. One of his former tenants in a Little Havana apartment building he owns is suing him for overcharging rent, collecting up to $2800 more from her than he should have under the county government's subsidized-housing program.
He also was supposed to be busy taking classes in firearm safety and education. If he completes this pretrial regimen, the misdemeanor charge against him for bringing those weapons to the airport will be dropped. But court records show the operators of the program kicked out the educator for cutting class. In fact he didn't show up once. (He was reaccepted into the program in April.)
But six weeks after his arrest, an apocryphal pod of dolphins and an ersatz fisherman delivered unto Perez an instant reputation booster, at least as far as his constituents are concerned. Several political observers interviewed for this story agree: Perez already was almost untouchable in his single-member electoral district. Now, with the image of Elian wearing his Lincoln-Martí uniform emblazoned in the consciousness of voters as they head to the polls, Perez's re-election this fall is a foregone conclusion.
Once he officially becomes a candidate, anyway. At press time neither Perez nor anyone else had registered to run for his District 5 school board seat. The deadline to qualify is July 21.
Another oversight? Overconfidence seems a more likely explanation.
«He's a hell of a politician,» says Armando Gutierrez, who ran a candidate against him for city commission back in 1985. «He'd be very hard to beat, I think.»
When Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives threw down the gauntlet on December 7, Demetrio Perez was one of the first exile leaders to pick it up and wave it in the face of the federal government. On that day, with help from his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and Lazaro's daughter Marisleysis, Elian tentatively announced he wanted to stay in Miami.
Gutierrez, one of Miami's most ruthlessly effective political consultants, quickly mobilized the most powerful forces within the Cuban-American power structure, notably the commentators of Radio Mambí, to exhort their audience to clamor for the boy to remain in Miami. He also brought Demetrio Perez to meet the family. Although the first Herald report of that meeting identified him as "Miami-Dade County School Board member," it soon became clear that Perez's role as a private school entrepreneur was more important -- especially since those private schools were well-known for their politically conservative and explicitly anti-Castro curriculum.
One observer notes this meeting came shortly after the first public indication that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was considering sending Elian back to Cuba. "There were rumors that INS was going to come and get him that day," says one source, who asked not to be identified. "Armando thought that if Elian were in school, they wouldn't take him from the classroom."
Gutierrez says that isn't quite how it happened. Perez was just one of many local politicians who came through the Gonzalez home in those early days, the veteran campaigner says. When the family decided to send Elian to school, they specifically considered Lincoln-Martí, because one of Elian's cousins already attended the school. "When Demetrio offered it to them for free, they decided to take him up on it," Gutierrez recalls.
Having Elian at his schools was a bargain for Perez, at any price. The child could have attended Miami-Dade County Public Schools for free, but that probably wouldn't have made Perez look good to his constituents. By allowing Elian to attend Lincoln-Martí at no cost until age eighteen -- an estimated value of $40,000 -- Perez stood to gain political points for his munificence. The stunning irony: By enrolling a child celebrity in his own private schools, Demetrio Perez increased his chances of being re-elected to his seat on the governing body of the public school system.
"I went on the radio on my talk show and extended an open invitation to Elian to attend the public schools," says fellow board member Manty Sabates Morse. "We have some wonderful public schools, and they're free, and we have teachers who teach in both English and Spanish. But he went on to Lincoln-Martí."
A persistent bugaboo raised by local exile leaders making the case for Elian to remain in Miami has been the assertion that, once the boy is returned to Cuba, he will be subjected to deprogramming. Castro, fearful that the precious seeds of liberty (Disney World, puppies, bunnies, green Lexuses) might take root in this child's heart and spread to other young Cubans yearning to wear gold chains and Power Rangers T-shirts, would force Elian to undergo a rigorous recommunization. Indeed, after his relocation to the Washington, D.C., area, Elian was photographed in the uniform of the Pioneros, Cuba's young-communist league.
One look at the curriculum of Lincoln-Martí Schools might cause many in the United States to wonder if the entire student body of Perez's academies could stand a little deprogramming. "From what I know about the school, it's very ideological," says Max Castro, senior research fellow of the University of Miami's North-South Center and sometime Herald columnist. "It's kind of a counterpart of the old Cuban educational system, which had a pretty strong ideological bent."
One of the pillars of that ideology was written by Perez himself. Titled Citizens Training Handbook, the work is taught to all grades at Lincoln-Martí. Among its lessons: Homosexuality and abortion are wrong, and Richard Nixon was treated unfairly. Also included is a veritable Miss Manners set of instructions on social behavior.
The author of this dubious scrap of pedagogy hasn't given up in his fight against the indoctrination of Elian. When Perez's son, Demetrio J. Perez, first spoke to New Times for this story back in early May, he said his father was attempting to arrange for a delegation of Elian's classmates from Lincoln-Martí Schools -- whom Elian knew for all of three months -- to visit the boy in Washington, D.C., presumably to provide some ideological balance to all of those minicommies.
"We're in communication with [Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney] Greg Craig and [the National Council of Churches' Rev.] Joan Campbell," he said. "We're trying to do this in cooperation with everybody and not step on anybody's toes."
Demetrio J. also noted he and his father were working on a school board agenda item calling for a "community unity day" in the school system. "We're going to ask the superintendent to declare that, in a low-key way that won't interfere with classes, at 11:00 a.m. on May 26, we'll call for a moment of reflection. Every student would join hands and reflect on the need for unity and understanding in our community.
"Since the school system is charged with educating everybody, we need to contribute to healing the wounds that have been opened," the younger Perez declared.
But what of his father's role in prodding those wounds? For the weeks during which Elian actually attended classes, not a day went by without his picture appearing on worldwide television wearing his Lincoln-Martí uniform, pulling his wheeled Lincoln-Martí book bag. And it didn't take long before Perez joined numerous other bootleggers in appropriating Elian's image for commercial purposes, plastering both the school logo and Elian's picture on T-shirts. Even today at the Lincoln-Martí school at 904 SW 23rd Ave., two national flags fly in the front yard, one Cuban the other American; the latter hangs upside down.
At www.lincoln-marti.com, the name of the school itself is actually written in a smaller typeface than the declaration beneath it: "ELIAN'S SCHOOL." The photo of the smiling Elian in his school uniform, fingers raised in the "v-for-victory" sign, graces the home page in full color. Neither the younger Perez nor his father have returned subsequent phone calls from New Times.
"I'm troubled that he's one of the more prominent Cuban-American educators," sighs Max Castro. "Our culture has a long history of outstanding educators and intellectuals, and he doesn't meet that standard by any stretch of the imagination. He's a paragon of intellectual mediocrity."
But producing Elian propaganda has not been Perez's only questionable maneuver designed to curry favor with the District 5 electorate. In June 1999 he organized a multicultural festival within his district, and invited only families who lived within the boundaries of that district. The parade cost taxpayers -- all taxpayers -- $30,000. He also recently resurrected one of his old tricks from his city commission days in the Eighties, when he sent out Mother's Day greetings to registered voters during an election year, using public funds.
In March 2000 he did it again, using student records to send birthday cards to students within the boundaries of District 5. He used his own money this time and sent the cards on his own stationery rather than school board supplies, but at least a few parents in the area didn't appreciate it, seeing Perez's gesture as a blatant attempt to ingratiate himself to potential voters (presumably the parents, not the kids themselves).
"This is a matter of courtesy and good manners," Perez told the Herald in April. "I think to congratulate a child on a birthday, that is something that encourages family values and courtesy. There is no politics and no business intent."
On May 9 he exhibited further courtesy and good manners, mailing out certificates printed on blue paper that read: "Happy National Teacher Appreciation Day!" This nonpolitical, nonbusiness, ungrammatical certificate, mailed to Miami-Dade County Public Schools faculty, also contained the slogan Perez's Website calls his mantra: "I want to reiterate my support to you, and thank you one more time for instilling in our students the sense of wonder which is the root of all knowledge in order to continue to EDUCATE CHILDREN, AND YOU WILL NOT PUNISH ADULTS."
Demetrio Perez's school board District 5 includes parts of Little Havana, Flagami, Sweetwater, and bits of Hialeah. At a whopping 84 percent, his is the most heavily Hispanic of the nine board districts, which came into being in 1996 in an attempt to make the school board more accurately reflect the ethnic makeup of the county. In that 1996 election, Perez won with 74 percent of the vote. (Perez rents an apartment within the boundaries of the district specifically to satisfy the legal residency requirement. The State Attorney's Office investigated his living situation in 1998 and found that Perez wasn't violating the vaguely worded law.)
The establishment of single-member school board districts resurrected Perez's long-dormant political career, whose roots stretched back to the Cuban city of Matanzas. His father, Demetrio Sr., himself a public school teacher in the Cuba of dictator Fulgencio Batista, sent his namesake to Miami through Operation Pedro Pan in 1962. He and his wife followed in 1964.
In 1968 Demetrio Sr. founded a new private school in the United States, one that combined the names of the most patriotic figures he could think of from American and Cuban history, respectively. After completing his own education, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Thomas University, Demetrio Jr. joined the family business.
He also founded Municipality of Matanzas in Exile, as well as an association of Cuban municipality- and neighborhood-in-exile groups. He was among the first Cuban-American politicians to mobilize his community's post-Mariel clout, getting elected to the Miami City Commission mostly on the strength of his anti-Castro credentials.
But back in 1981, city commissioners were elected at-large. Perez never appealed much to black or Anglo voters, and by 1985, many in Miami, even within the Cuban community, had begun to view him as something of a buffoon. He spearheaded the charge to prevent Brian De Palma from filming 1983's Scarface on location in Miami, finding the picture to be so anti-Cuban as to merit prior restraint. In 1983 he proposed the city declare a day honoring Cuban exile Juan Felipe de la Cruz, who was accidentally killed while assembling a bomb.
And in 1985, an election year, he got pummeled for a particularly embarrassing taxpayer-subsidized junket to Paris to inspect public toilets. His opponents, notably Rosario Kennedy and Manolo Reyes, had plenty of ammunition against him. Perez responded by running one of the decade's sleaziest campaigns. Kennedy was his favorite target: He accused her of being a communist sympathizer and called her a front for the "infamous corruption" of her husband, former Miami Mayor David Kennedy. (He had been indicted and removed from office, accused of bribing a judge, but the courts threw out the charge and he was reinstated as mayor.)
Kennedy beat him badly. The Herald at the time ripped Perez's "one-note" politics, and blasted his "gutter-level" tactics in the campaign against Kennedy. A 1985 Herald editorial wrote him this political epitaph: "Voters bade him a deserved good riddance."
At that time the Herald had every reason to believe Perez was gone for good. A guy who so blatantly represents government of the Cubans, by the Cubans, for the Cubans, had little hope of being elected county- or even city-wide. The establishment of single-member districts, first in the county government, then in the school board, offered renewed hope to Perez. His resounding victory in 1996 was achieved through old-school Havana-ward-politics campaigning, complete with flag-waving busloads of senior citizens.
Despite the fact that three other Cuban-American Republicans -- Renier Diaz de la Portilla, Perla Tabares Hantman, and Manty Sabates Morse -- also swept on to a school board previously dominated by white-Anglo Democrats, it was Perez the old hands in the district found the most disconcerting.
"Guys like him are anathema to the Anglo community in Aventura, Perrine, Pinecrest, but his message doesn't have to play in Pinecrest," comments Maurice Ferre. "He really is sort of the archetypal exile politician."
Not only that, Ferre continues, the 55-year-old Perez actually has more in common, ideologically and in his manner, with the previous generation of exile leadership. "Demetrio Perez speaks a grammatically perfect Spanish," Ferre says. "He's very formal. When you talk to him, it's like listening to someone out of the last century in Cuba. You know, I've known him for 30 years. We served together at the City of Miami, and he still addresses me in the usted form," he says. "I've told him he doesn't have to do that, but he still has never spoken to me except in the formal manner."
Perez has had his radio show, Educación y Comunidad (Education and Community), on Radio Mambí for ten years. At Mambí nothing goes on the air without the say-so of Armando Perez-Roura. The 72-year old commentator's booming baritone is the public voice of the previous generation of exile leadership Ferre refers to; Demetrio Perez's views on local, national, and international politics don't deviate far from those of Perez-Roura.
"His close relationship with Perez-Roura and Radio Mambí should be of concern to any reasonable citizen," says Francisco Aruca, who constantly criticizes the Cuban-American right wing on his own English- and Spanish-language radio shows. "Anyone who listens to Radio Mambí's narrow-mindedness and aggressiveness would think that this is the last kind of mentality we would like to have influencing someone who is supposed to be an educator.
"Perez knows he depends upon the type of Cuban who is influenced by Radio Mambí, so he gets a show on Mambí," Aruca says. "It's a mutual admiration society, and he gets to raise his profile in that community."
As of July 1998, Demetrio Perez was the second-wealthiest member of the Miami-Dade County School Board. At $3,198,175, his net worth ranked second behind that of Marta Perez (no relation), who, between her husband's airline service business and their real estate holdings, weighed in at $3,315,000.
Lincoln-Martí Schools is Perez's primary business. County records show that Perez and/or Lincoln-Martí Schools own no fewer than 38 properties, most of which serve as campuses for the 17 schools. His other holdings include a four-unit, two-story apartment building at 2320 SW Ninth St., where, beginning in the mid-Eighties, Migdalia Quintana was a tenant.
Quintana, now in her late fifties, has three children. In April 1995 she qualified for low-cost Section 8 housing, a federal rental-assistance program administered by the county. Once the Metro-Dade Housing Agency accepted her into the Section 8 program, at least half of her rent was paid directly to her landlord, Perez. Quintana was responsible for the remainder.
Some three years after she first qualified for Section 8, Quintana sued Perez in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, alleging Perez had charged her more than what the county had determined was her share of the rent on the unit. She claims she complied for nearly two years, but when she finally stood up to him, he forced her to leave the apartment. She's suing for the return of the alleged excess money she paid, plus damages from what she says was a wrongful eviction.
According to sworn documents filed in the case, Perez did in fact charge Quintana more than he should have. At the time Quintana joined the Section 8 program, the county set the maximum rental allowed for the unit at $498. The county paid Perez $271; Quintana was responsible for the remaining $227. Yet Perez wrote in a court document that he collected $335 from Quintana that month.
The discrepancies continue. The county records show that in May and June of 1995, the program's level of assistance remained at $271; Perez asserts that, in those two months, he collected only $28 from Quintana -- apparently undercharging her by some $200. In July the county both reduced the allowable rent on the unit to $450 and increased its level of subsidy to $422. Quintana's share was supposed to be $28.
From July to November of that year, the county's and Perez's numbers agree. Then, in December 1995, Perez says he collected $325 from Quintana, $297 more than the county-mandated maximum rent for the unit. With the exception of a four-month period, he continued to collect similarly inflated sums until June 1997, at which point Quintana left and moved in with her daughter Hilda.
Comparing the numbers from the county and from Perez, it appears the educator overcharged the unemployed Cuban-American grandmother by $2800 over two years. Migdalia Quintana declined to be interviewed for this story, but her daughter Hilda relates that, for most of this time, her mother hid the overcharges from her own family. When her mother finally began to complain to Perez's employees, Hilda says, those employees responded by harassing Migdalia about the number of cars in the parking lot -- blaming her and her children -- and repeatedly threatening to change the locks on her apartment.
"Mr. Perez is a man that, because he had money and power, took advantage of me," Migdalia Quintana wrote in court documents. "He must be stopped. He is a criminal that hides under a suit."
In an April 2000 deposition, Perez denied any harassment of Quintana and denied that she was forced to leave the apartment. Perez's own records confirm the additional rent charges, but in his sworn testimony taken in this still-pending case, Perez asserted the extra charges were for furniture rental. He said he rented the unit to Quintana furnished, but the extra charge for furniture "doesn't have any relation with this [lease] agreement."
Bernard Goldfarb, Quintana's attorney, asked Perez if the furniture-rental agreement was verbal, and Perez said it was. But the school board member could not remember who made that agreement or how it was determined how much Quintana would pay for the furniture. "It was a long time ago," Perez said.
Hilda Quintana says the furniture-rental argument is "a lie; he just made it up." She says her mother bought the furniture for the apartment herself and brought it with her to the Silver Bluff home she shares with Hilda's family. Attorney Goldfarb notes that, in the previous two years of motions, interrogatories, and pleadings in the case, neither Perez nor his attorneys ever mentioned the overcharges were for furniture. "I don't know where he got that, and my client denies it," he says. "I think anybody reading his deposition would see that he's not real credible on that question."
Goldfarb also points out that the case has proceeded "like molasses," mostly owing to dithering and delaying by Perez and his attorneys. Perez himself was sanctioned and fined $350 for failing to turn over evidence on time. The case is set for a nonjury trial for the week beginning July 10.
When Demetrio Perez first got his show on Radio Mambí in December 1989, he told El Nuevo Herald he didn't want to use his airtime for political purposes, but to "help the Hispanic community with an emphasis on education and social problems." But the lines between his myriad roles are blurred. Where does Demetrio the radio commentator stop and Demetrio the newspaper publisher begin? What about Demetrio the private school owner and Demetrio the school board member? Demetrio the politician and Demetrio the millionaire?
As his May 27 edition of Educación y Comunidad gets rolling, it quickly becomes clear that those lines are so blurry as to be nonexistent. He also doesn't see any line between himself and his listeners. Perez wastes no time referring to himself as "we."
"We also want to give thanks, as we did in yesterday's commentary, through this station, to all of the schools, educational institutions, to all the students, to the parents, to the families, to the employees, to the administrators, and those key people, our teachers, who yesterday responded to the call for community unity in a moment of silent meditation, observed at 11:00 a.m., in different schools here," he drones, in his slow, pedantic delivery. "As you know, we proposed, at the last meeting of our school board, this moment of silent meditation for community unity.
"Personally I had the honor and the opportunity to participate in this magnificent act, which took place at 11:00 a.m. yesterday, Friday, here in Sunset Elementary School." He recounted how nearly 1000 students joined hands for one minute of quiet reflection.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
This impressive act transformed "our neighborhoods, our streets, our avenues, into one giant classroom," he declared. His idea was such a resounding success, he said, that this celebration should become a traditional celebration for the Friday before Memorial Day. "It was a great success in every sense," he announced.
Immediately thereafter, Perez's guest that day, an engineer from Chicago named Luis Era, offered this benediction to his host: "All of the Cubans in Chicago understand the work you do in the teaching profession, and we're sure that you will be one of the great bulwarks that Cuba can count on at the time of reconstruction."
The two then went on to discuss an article Era had written in Libre some weeks before that explored the possibility that Fidel Castro would use Elian Gonzalez for a blood sacrifice in an Afro-Cuban religious ritual. Era did make one error, though, for which Perez corrected him. The guest referred to Libre as "your" magazine.
"Ours, ours," Perez insisted.