Down but Probably Not Out
Temporarily blinded by the blizzard of chad that has smothered South Florida, many people have forgotten that the November 7 ballot contained numerous other contests and issues. North Bay Village bravely vowed to clean up the "linguistic errors" that sullied its city charter. Hialeah embraced professional baseball without any help or apparent interest from the Florida Marlins. And Miami-Dade County approved publicly financed political campaigns without any idea how to do it. Voters also sent men and women to the state House, the mayor's office, and several city commission chambers.
As always for every winner there was a loser. Two of those losers were of particular interest. Political neophytes whose high-flying dreams of public service never got off the runway, they shared quite a bit in common: Both were relatively young men, both claimed Cuban heritage, both enjoyed the benefit of prominent fathers, and both were accused of being cynical carpetbaggers. One more thing: We haven't seen the last of them; both probably will seek elected office again.
Demetrio J. Perez has come of age. A 24-year-old candidate for the Miami-Dade County school board on which his namesake father sits, the baby-faced Perez was disqualified from the race by a circuit court judge just days from a likely win at the polls. But not before losing his electoral virginity in the back seat of dear old dad's political machine. In his first run for public office he managed to provoke bitter court fights, public outrage, media excoriation, and a State Attorney's investigation into campaign-finance irregularities.
But none of this has diminished the toothy gleam of Perez's ubiquitous smile. He's even considering another run for a political office after he finishes law school at the University of Miami. "People responded very positively to me, in spite of all the attacks and everything," he says over coffee at the Starbucks across South Dixie Highway from the UM campus. "So it's something to consider. You can't be an elections chaser, but if something presents itself in the future, I'll certainly consider it. But as of right now, there's a whole world ahead of me."
Some fellow students and professors at UM, however, would like Perez to consider the world behind him. Law professor Anthony V. Alfieri, director and founder of the Center for Ethics & Public Service at UM's School of Law, reports that a number of students have discussed filing an "honors code" complaint with the school on the grounds that Perez's conduct during his school-board campaign -- particularly the matter of his supposed residence -- may have involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. If they do, Perez might have to explain himself once again, this time in front of a student honors council, a quasi-judicial tribunal that can recommend punishment to the law school's dean.
According to Alfieri, Perez also might expect a character-and-fitness investigation of his conduct to take place when he seeks admission to the Florida Bar. "It is a troubling matter for the law school community," Alfieri notes. "It has given pause to the students and the faculty. Insofar as our students have experienced [Perez's] travails as a kind of moral object lesson, that's all to the good."
Back at the coffee shop two weeks after the election, Perez ponders this question: If he could rewind to July, would he do anything differently? "That's the $20-million question," he chuckles. "I always say that I wish I could have read the map more carefully that first time. They say hindsight is 20/20, but honestly it's just mind-boggling -- one little detail."
Another little detail: Did he think it appropriate to have two close relatives sitting on the same school board? Perez's perpetual grin wilts slightly around the edges and then quickly returns. He leans forward as he confides that his father posed a similar question: "He asked me: So, don't you think it's going to be strange?' Some people may say that we have the perfect relationship. I wouldn't trade my father for anybody else. In the end, though, if I was going to go on the [school] board and be his puppet, I'd immediately be out of there when my re-election came up in four years." This was good enough for Perez the elder, who had one more piece of advice for his son: "He told me to really think about it and see if this was what I wanted to do. He told me obviously there are sacrifices when you get into public office. You're now in the public eye."
Frank Cobo, a Perez opponent who didn't make it past the primary, doesn't buy the business about sacrifices and political independence. He believes Perez was never a legitimate candidate, and he's suing to force a new election with all the original candidates except Perez. "He did everything wrong," Cobo asserts. "There isn't one thing he did right. Whether I have a special election or not, I'm proud to say I kept that joker off the board."
The antagonism is lost on Perez. He insists he was always honest about his efforts to find a residence within District 7. "To tell you the truth, I know I didn't do anything wrong," he says. "I am in a career where integrity is important, and frankly it's ludicrous to think I'm going to come out and make up these stories and jeopardize my career for a seat on the school board. I'm at peace with whatever [the various judges] decided. I don't agree with what they said, but I can go to sleep at night knowing I told the truth. I was basing myself on the way the law was written. If people don't agree with that, then they need to change the law."
The sky overhead is slate gray, the river below is mud brown, and Alberto Milian is staring somewhere in between, trying to picture a future that is as opaque as the elements before him. "I'm just considering the options," says the hard-charging loser in the Miami-Dade State Attorney's race during a recent lunch at Joe's Seafood, on the rear deck perched over the Miami River. "I need a job."
You wouldn't think the election was over the way Milian enters the restaurant. He glad-hands the valet and waitstaff, vigorously asking everyone how they're doing. It's hard to tell if he's naturally this way or if he's hoping for a glimmer of recognition in their eyes, an acknowledgement of his brief celebrity.
Odds are his celebrity has only begun. By conventional standards the 40-year-old Milian pulled off a remarkable feat on election day. Despite having spent his entire legal career in the Broward County Prosecutor's Office and despite campaigning here as a virtual stranger (although he did have help from the majority of the county's police unions), he racked up 44 percent of the vote. The accomplishment was even more stunning given that he was fresh from the controversy that dogged him throughout his campaign: the pesky matter of decking a defense attorney during a dispute over jury selection.
But to hear Milian tell it, he actually thought he would win, had his heart set on it in fact. Which helps explain why he can't seem to find the exit ramp off the campaign trail. "The problems we complained about during the election are still out there," he says as urgently as if he were chatting up los viejos in Little Havana. "And if Katherine Rundle focuses on public corruption, violent crime, and provides the leadership for police that they need, then we've won the election."
Clearly Milian isn't going to shut up, and he isn't going to go away. So what will he do with his newfound popularity? Not surprisingly he's been approached about running for mayor of Miami next year: He's a proven candidate who is very popular among the city's elderly Cuban voters. He also could make another run at the top prosecutor's job in four years, which, he acknowledges, he's definitely considering.
"He certainly has a bright future," says John Rivera, president of the powerful Police Benevolent Association, which recruited Milian to run against Rundle. "His name is even being floated around out there by some influential people as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, if George W. Bush wins the presidency. I mean, the people who voted for him are so loyal it's incredible."
If Milian chooses to run for office again, it's obvious he'll need to make inroads beyond Latin, and especially Cuban, Miami. "I haven't seen the election results yet," he says. "I understand I did well in the Hispanic areas but I didn't have a lot of support in the African-American areas, which I'm disappointed about because I think I would have done some phenomenal work regarding crime in those communities."
According to the county's elections department, he pulled in about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, capitalizing on, among other things, his Cuban heritage and the fact that his father, Emilio Milian, is a popular talk-show host on La Poderosa, WWFE-AM (670). Rundle, knowing there would be a Cuban backlash against Democrats because of Elian Gonzalez, campaigned hard in Miami-Dade's black community, with the help of stalwarts such as congresswoman Carrie Meek.
That was a wise maneuver, as it took advantage of two things: the flip side of the Elian factor -- namely, the sense of political disenfranchisement blacks felt at the hands of Cuban politicians; and the black antipathy toward Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative to phase out affirmative action. (See this week's "DeFede" column, page fifteen, for more on the black vote.) As a result Rundle garnered an impressive 96 percent of the black vote. In other words black Miami handed her the election. (Anglos voted for Rundle by another 70 percent.) "No doubt about it," Rivera says, "had it not been for the African-American community, he would be State Attorney."
So Milian, in his first bid for public office, is left to learn from mistakes. Meanwhile he's keeping his name out there by substituting as a host on his father's radio show. La Poderosa's president, Jorge A. Rodriguez, sees a future for Milian on the airwaves. "He needs a little bit of training, but he expresses himself very well in Spanish, and no question about it, he has a lot of supporters already. This would only help him politically."
But first things first: Milian must find a paying job. After twelve years prosecuting the wicked, he is not keen on the idea of criminal-defense work. "I don't think temperamentally I'm suited for it," he says without a hint of irony. When asked about civil law, he perks up: "I could be interested in civil work, as a personal-injury lawyer. In injury cases you're always representing the victims."
But he slumps almost as quickly, gazing out at the slow-moving river. "I've got my heart set on being a prosecutor," he confesses.
For the time being, he spends his days reading (he's currently immersed in a biography of Albert Camus). He works out. He calls people to thank them for volunteering on his campaign. And of course he keeps his stump speech primed and ready. "I don't know where I'll be six months from now, but I cannot foresee a time when having integrity in public office will not be at the forefront of the community's concerns," he intones. "I want to go where I can best serve the public."
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