Elector Set

The 1997 Hialeah mayoral race is already moving along at a brisk clip by this Saturday morning in mid-October, but everyone knows the ride's going to get a lot rougher very soon. This is a landmark election in Hialeah, and in Dade County too, although right now the scene at Chico's Restaurant looks and sounds a lot like every other campaign breakfast the venerable eatery and political melting pot has hosted during its seventeen years of existence. Which means much rhetoric about Cuba woven into occasional attacks on political opponents and discussion of crime, jobs, and potholes.

A group of politicians, ex-political prisoners, and other anti-Castro exiles is arrayed around a makeshift banquet table -- actually a half-dozen square tables pushed together -- in the middle of Chico's dining room. At the head, his back to the restaurant's bumper sticker-plastered glass front doors, sits the guest of honor, Mayor Raul Martinez. Between bites of scrambled eggs and ham and French fries, the six-foot-two incumbent, dressed in his usual dark suit, starched white shirt, and tie, rises to shake hands with the supporters who have come by to wish him well in his bid for re-election. Such scenes are enacted everywhere the mayor goes, rituals with a strongly Latin overtone in this town, the most predominantly Hispanic major city in the nation, in the fine tradition of citizens approaching their jefe, their benefactor.

Several of those assembled around the table are also anxious to offer their tributes to the man who has dominated the state's fifth-largest city for thirteen years. But first things first. This occasion, like most political gatherings of Cuban-born South Floridians, requires homage to the dream of a communism-free island, even if there's little they or their elected leaders can do to fulfill that dream.

"Our principal cause is Cuba, and the fight to free our homeland," proclaims Pedro Rodriguez Medina, president of Resistencia Civica Anti-Comunista Cubana -- and, incidentally, a cousin of Martinez's opponent, Hialeah City Council President Herman Echevarria. "We've all risked our lives for our consciences, and so many people in this country have helped us. It's our obligation to lend our solidarity and support to them, and so we are grateful for everything Raul Martinez has done for us."

Fellow resistor Rolando Alvarez arises. "Herman Echevarria keeps saying he has a magic formula to make Hialeah rich," he declares. "But why didn't he tell anyone about it all those years [he was on the city council]? It reminds me of what we used to say in [the Havana neighborhood] Santo Suarez: If you don't bring a baseball, you can't play in the game."

Now the mayor launches one of his several patented attacks on his rival, pointing out that in 1979 Echevarria attended a Hialeah Chamber of Commerce function at which a visiting Cuban official was presented with a key to the city. "There's concern here about the fact that that organization presented a key to a member of the Communist Party," Martinez says, his voice hardening indignantly. "I have a photograph of my opponent giving him a key. We have to remember that this is part of his life; this is the kind of person he is."

While some of those present nod in agreement, the rest are silent; it seems that twenty years is sufficient time for this incident to have lost some of its power to provoke. Indeed, just a week ago Echevarria was feted by a couple of other groups of former political prisoners who were evidently unfazed by the story, or, for that matter, by another allegation of the same vintage; namely, that Echevarria transacted business in Cuba while on a visit in 1980. (He contends that it was merely a family visit).

Still, one onlooker, a young man in T-shirt and shorts who has been among the constant gaggle hanging out at Chico's coffee window or in the general vicinity of the front door, is moved by the mayor's denunciations. He steps eagerly to Martinez's side, an obvious interloper among the well-dressed, neatly coifed, and older group. "Excuse me, Senor Alcalde," the man begins, and Martinez looks up at him with a smile. "I'm not Cuban, I'm from Nicaragua, but we too suffered because of communism, and we're all united in the cause. I want to thank you for your support. You're doing a great job. Thank you." The man drifts away to light applause. Styrofoam cups of cafe con leche arrive and the speeches resume, interspersed with more visits from reverent onlookers, until it's time for the mayor to depart for another campaign stop, the dedication of a new medical center.

Echevarria will be there too, and the occasion will highlight the two candidates' vastly different personalities and campaign styles: the regal, charismatic Martinez holding court while the engaging Echevarria, known for his accessibility and his skills at consensus-building, grasps as many hands and inquires about as many families as he can. Another difference: the young men who shadow Echevarria with cell phones and clipboards at the ready, able to call up facts, dates, and statistics at a moment's notice, to point out perhaps a study the candidate hasn't mentioned or a person he hasn't noticed. Martinez has no such assistance. While his wife Angela, secretary Mabel Mizrahi, and others play indispensable organizational roles, the incumbent isn't big on strategy or statistics. He is his own computer printout; he can make a 30-minute data-packed speech in English and then repeat it in Spanish, virtually word for word, without notes.

While the 42-year-old Echevarria, who is the chief financial officer for a large downtown ad agency, steadfastly sticks to "the issues" in this race -- unemployment, crime, economic development -- the election is in many ways a referendum on one man. Devoted followers and avowed enemies alike acknowledge that Raul Martinez evokes such strong feelings that most of the votes in past mayoral elections have been either for or against him; the opponent is almost irrelevant.

Martinez has never run a race like this one, though, never faced an opponent like Echevarria. In order to win, he'll need all of his considerable talents. But more than once in his twenty-year political career he has been thrown into the crematorium of political has-beens and emerged without a singed hair on his (now graying) head. "My obituary has been written many times," he says. "But I'm still here."

More than a few of Martinez's supporters wondered at his decision to run this year against a popular elected official who has mounted the best-funded and highest-profile campaign ever seen in Hialeah.

He has opted to go out against the great army of Dade, commanded with precision by his former protege Alex Penelas, who has committed himself and his prodigious resources to making Echevarria mayor of Hialeah. Flanking Penelas on the battlefield: Republican U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former head of the Dade Republican Party Jeb Bush, Republican State Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rudy Garcia, County Commissioners Natacha Millan and Miriam Alonso, a multitude of other local elected officials, and several candidates for Hialeah City Council who are running as a pro-Echevarria slate. They're all out there knocking on doors and calling on contributors. The Police Benevolent Association that represents the city's police officers has endorsed Echevarria and has been running radio ads and bus signs highly critical of Martinez, who angered the rank-and-file by, among other things, vetoing a contract that included a retroactive pay raise.

Up until eighteen months ago, Echevarria and Martinez were long-time political allies, working together in opposition to many of the same candidates who are now running on Echevarria's slate. The council president inherited most of the anti-Martinez forces when he announced his candidacy; loyalties solidified when Martinez's perennial rival Nilo Juri decided not to run for mayor and endorsed Echevarria instead.

By election day this Tuesday, November 4, Echevarria expects to have spent an unheard-of-in-Hialeah $450,000. Martinez says he'll have raised about $275,000. More significant is how each side will spend its money, and here the prospects look bleaker for Martinez, by virtue of Alex Penelas's proven ability to package an effective modern campaign, as he did last year when he ran for Dade County mayor and garnered nearly 61 percent of the vote. Hialeah's favorite youngest son, who came up through the city's family-style political system and sat on the council for four years alongside Echevarria, has emerged a rising star on the national horizon, and he didn't do it by putting up a lot of signs with his name on them. He hired a national polling firm, poured money into tightly targeted broadcast and direct-mail advertising, and kept his face before the voters, on television and in personal appearances.

Now that approach has come to Hialeah, courtesy of what most observers consider an increasingly well-established countywide political machine with Penelas at its hub. "From a political perspective, this race will define Dade County for the next ten years," asserts State Rep. Luis Rojas of Hialeah, a staunch Martinez ally. "The Penelas forces are trying to create a machine to control the county."

Hialeah isn't exactly like the rest of Dade. This working-class town of 212,000 is 90 percent Hispanic, with Latins composing 78 percent of all registered voters. Hialeah had strong connections to Cuba in the Fifties, even before the Communist revolution sent many thousands of emigrants to join family members here, and before many thousands more joined them from all over Latin America, eventually relegating to near-invisibility the once omnipotent Anglos and a tiny outpost of black residents.

Hialeah, its citizens like to say, has always been acogedor -- welcoming, hospitable -- but as it embraced more and more Hispanic newcomers, it has become something slightly different: an ethnically homogeneous city, in many ways a world unto itself. "People in Hialeah don't like intruders," says City Councilman Raymundo Barrios, a Martinez supporter who believes voters will resent the invasion of "outsiders" like the heavy hitters in Echevarria's camp. They, he alleges, have abandoned their commitment to the community as they followed their aspirations to higher office and larger constituencies.

Forty days before the election, the Miami Herald and WLTV-TV (Channel 23) released the results of a poll that showed Martinez nine points ahead of Echevarria, with the mayor's strongest support coming from women and elderly voters. Both candidates said they were encouraged by the figures -- Martinez because he was ahead, Echevarria because he seemed to be gaining. (A few months earlier the challenger had commissioned his own poll, conducted by Frederick Schneiders Research, a Washington, D.C.-based polling firm that Penelas uses. Echevarria's camp didn't release the results, but the word among local political operatives had Echevarria somewhere between eleven and eighteen points behind at that time.)

Echevarria walks door to door almost every day, sometimes twice a day, changing clothes between each foray into Hialeah's narrow mazes of neighborhoods. At the same time he's walking one precinct, five or six groups of his volunteers are working other areas, headed up by politicians like Penelas, Millan, and Alonso, and by Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen when they're in town. Altogether, Operation New Shoes -- so dubbed by Echevarria's campaign aides -- has already taken some 400 volunteers to more than 25,000 homes.

Though his consultants aren't enthusiastic about such low-tech techniques, Penelas feels the walking is the single most important element of Echevarria's campaign, so much so that he ordered the candidate's calendar to remain open every day from 5:00 until 8:00 p.m. exclusively for walking. "I asserted myself on that issue," the county mayor says. "I really didn't care what else he needed to do -- I'd rather knock on 80 doors than go to 50 fundraisers and raise a whole bunch of money. Herman's done that walking every night, and it's going to pay off."

Each group consults street-by-street demographic profiles that tell them the names, ages, ethnicities, and party affiliations of each household with registered voters, as well as how long those voters have been registered. A volunteer drives alongside in a pick-up truck loaded with yard signs, ready for any takers. Residents who aren't home will return to find a flyer hanging from their front doorknob.

And so it is that Echevarria can stride up the walkway to a stucco bungalow, knock on the front door, and confidently call out, "Senora Navarro?"

The door opens just a little, and the candidate introduces himself in Spanish. "I'm walking through your neighborhood today, and I just wanted to introduce myself and ask for your vote," he says.

"AAy, mucho gusto!" exclaims the 32-year-old woman, opening the door and smoothing her hair. The demographic data on an aide's clipboard indicates that a family of six lives in the home, Hispanics, registered Republicans -- definitely Echevarria's type. "Wait just a minute," the woman says. "Let me call my husband to come meet you." A man appears a few seconds later, beaming, to shake Echevarria's hand. "Can I count on you on November 4?" Echevarria asks. "Si, como no," the man replies. "Of course."

"That was a 'yes,'" Echevarria nods to the aide, Francois Illas. At the end of the two- or three-hour walk, Illas will have noted a "yes," "no," or "undecided" next to the address of each house they visited. The reactions serve as an informal poll whose results are computer-crunched almost daily to provide feedback for Echevarria strategists.

"I always give [Martinez] the undecideds," the challenger explains. "Even with that, look at this: In Precinct 318, where I walked yesterday, 53 percent were with us, 29 percent were undecideds. Even giving him 100 percent of the undecideds, we're still ahead there. This is all very unscientific, but it shows you what we've been seeing."

Adds Illas: "Herman's doing precinct walking like it's never been done before. It's organized like it's never been before."

The 25-year-old aide received his master's degree last year in political science and political campaign management in a joint Florida International University-George Washington University program. He and other young people looking to make a career in politics are doing much of the campaign legwork. (Some, like long-time Echevarria aide Rolando Marante, who took a leave from his job at the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce and Industries, are volunteering. Others, like Illas, are being paid. Illas says he's not allowed by contract to reveal his salary, but expenditure reports indicate that he's earning about $300 a week.)

The system's intellectual authorship belongs to Echevarria and Penelas, whose own mayoral campaign serves as a model. "There have been aspects of my campaign we've tried to emulate," explains Penelas, "but you're talking about a much smaller area with a rich tradition in a lot of grassroots campaigning."

Sure enough, anyone who has entered Hialeah during election season can't fail to notice the surfeit of campaign signs, which bristle like bizarre cubist montages from seemingly every pole and wall. Another time-honored tradition: caravans for each candidate, featuring miles of cars adorned with signs and banners, honking, blaring salsa music, winding ceremoniously through the town, and these days often blocking streets and annoying many impatient drivers. This year Echevarria, ever the expert at political compromise, split his caravan into five smaller ones to minimize traffic problems. Still, he's spent about $30,000 to blanket Hialeah with signs and bumper stickers.

"I hate signs," Penelas laments. "The only reason I went along with it is it's Hialeah. The biggest headache I had in my [county mayor] campaign was that everybody was convinced I was going to lose because I didn't have enough signs out. Including Herman. Herman would order signs even without my authorization."

Most campaign specialists agree that such traditions are an almost complete waste of money when it comes to actually getting people to vote for your candidate. "All that grassroots stuff, signage, is not important to me," says Phil Hamersmith, a prominent Dade political consultant who at various times has worked on Penelas and Martinez campaigns. "If you go around the country to governor and Senate races and say 'grassroots,' they don't know what you're talking about. The only way to beat an institutionalized politician like Raul Martinez is with a well-run modern campaign. I don't know if Echevarria is capable of running such a campaign, but I do know Penelas is. If Penelas can take control of the campaign and go to electronic media and direct mail, Echevarria will have a chance to beat Martinez. You're talking almost exclusively Hispanic media, TV, and radio."

Rob Schroth, a Washington-based pollster who conducted the Herald/Channel 23 poll, cautions that the challenger nevertheless faces a monumental task. "The only way to beat Raul Martinez in Hialeah in 1997 is with a perfect campaign," says Schroth, who grew up in Hialeah. "Echevarria is up against a very, very difficult political situation. You know the saying: 'If you're going to kill the king, you've got to cut his head off.' You've got to arrive with a big army. Mayor Penelas served to give Herman a nice head start, but beyond that he's on his own. [Penelas] may be very popular in Hialeah, but voters understand they're not electing him as mayor. Money and organization can buy you 48 percent of the vote in Hialeah. To go above 50 takes more, and we just don't know if Echevarria can come up with the final votes he needs for victory. Everybody else who's been given that test has failed. I'm not a Raul partisan, but as a student of politics in South Florida I've become an admirer of his numbers. He's a wonderful talent who's not going to go away easily or quickly or because of some design by Alex Penelas or Herman Echevarria or anyone else."

Two weeks before the election, speculation abounds as to what form the well-endowed Echevarria campaign will take as it moves into its final days. While Martinez appears to be sticking to his usual practice of writing just a few low-budget TV spots, Echevarria has nine professionally produced ads in the can. Still, at press time it wasn't clear when or whether he plans to bring out the heavy artillery. Says one consultant with connections in both camps who didn't want his name used: "Herman hasn't been listening to Alex as much as Alex and the big contributors think he should. There's tension, and the tension has boiled over. Remember, you're talking about how to spend $400,000 in Hialeah."

At least publicly, Raul Martinez is underwhelmed by the spectacle of Echevarria, his money, and his influential friends. "I was around before any of them," he scoffs. "I got them all elected."

When Martinez was first elected to the council in 1977 at the age of 26, he was one of three Cuban-born councilmen. Soon after he became mayor in 1981, the composition of the council shifted quickly. Echevarria was elected in 1983 after joining Martinez's slate. Penelas and Millan were elected in 1987, with the blessing of the mayor. Those alliances and friendships, however, were irrevocably altered by Martinez's indictment in 1990 on federal corruption charges. "When I got suspended from office," the mayor says, "they formed their own group, thinking I was dead."

While Penelas and Millan went on to the Dade County Commission with the advent of single-member districts in 1993, Echevarria stayed on in Hialeah, continuing to build his network of business and political allies. In 1993 he seriously considered running for mayor of Hialeah, the job he'd wanted ever since entering politics (and losing his first race for council) in 1981.

But 1993 was the year Raul Martinez decided to run again for mayor. Out of office for three years after his indictment and conviction, he was free on bond -- and free to run for office -- while his case was on appeal. When Martinez announced his intention to run against Nilo Juri for the third time, Echevarria quietly set aside his own plans and lined up behind his long-time ally. He even persuaded Penelas and Millan to campaign for Martinez -- a not-insignificant bit of diplomacy on Echevarria's part, given that by then neither commissioner was on friendly terms with Martinez. When Martinez won by a tiny margin, many insiders were convinced it was Echevarria's influence that made the difference.

A year later, in response to a lawsuit Juri filed alleging absentee vote fraud, Dade Circuit Court Judge Sidney Shapiro voided the vote and called for a new one. (Shapiro found evidence of fraud on both sides.) In the monthlong interim between the ruling and the election, Martinez voluntarily vacated his post; in his absence, the city charter called for the council president to fill in. So Echevarria moved into the mayor's wood-paneled office and sat behind the desk of legendary Hialeah Mayor Henry Milander (who himself had won re-election after pleading guilty to grand larceny in 1970). To the surprise of everyone, including his own camp, Martinez beat Juri by a wide margin in the second election.

Early in 1995 he received even better news: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta threw out his criminal conviction and ordered a new trial. In March of last year the U.S. Attorney's Office called back its witnesses to recite ten-year-old incidents in which Martinez allegedly demanded kickbacks from developers in return for zoning favors. The trial ended in a hung jury, as did a second trial two months later, and federal prosecutors finally dropped the case. A federal investigation into the 1993 absentee-ballot fraud allegations was closed in November 1996, when the lead prosecutor opted not to file charges. (Though two Martinez campaign workers had told the FBI of forged signatures and ballots submitted on behalf of mentally ill or otherwise incapacitated nursing-home residents, the prosecutor said the testimony was too contradictory for the government to make a viable case.)

Echevarria announced his candidacy for mayor early, in July of 1996, only a few months after Martinez had emerged from his seven-year legal ordeal. At the time, many assumed that Martinez, having been exonerated and having already taken back his political career, had little left to prove. Maybe he'd go to Washington, as either an elected official or -- he's a Democrat -- an appointee. The months went by; Echevarria and Penelas set their strategy and raised money, and Martinez gave no outward indication of his plans. But even as pundits were speculating that State Sen. Roberto Casas, a Martinez ally, would run against Echevarria with the outgoing mayor's blessing, Martinez announced his candidacy in May.

If the incumbent has any doubts that he made the right decision, he isn't saying so publicly. "Why would I get out of politics when I didn't do anything wrong? I think the people can see how well the city has been run under my administration," he contends. "And when my wife and I conferred with our two kids -- my son was at the university at the time, and my daughter was coming back from Washington on spring break -- my son was all gung-ho, and my daughter was really happy."

By the time Martinez entered the fray, Echevarria, who had for years said he wanted to be mayor but wouldn't run against Martinez, couldn't have backed out even if he'd wanted to. But he did turn down several opportunities to engage in debate, insisting that he had agreed to only one -- which was taped October 23 and televised October 26 by WSCV-TV (Channel 51) -- and that he needed to spend his time walking precincts and meeting with voters. Instead of the usual situation in which the challenger dares the incumbent to debate, the incumbent was taunting the challenger.

"Where's Herman?" Martinez asked one afternoon at what would have been one of three mayoral debates (the Miami Beach and Miami races were the others) hosted at Victor's Cafe by the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD). Cameras from both major Spanish-language TV stations were in attendance, as were reporters from Spanish-language radio and print media. "What is Herman afraid of?" Martinez went on. "He doesn't have anything to say that's the truth. He's an empty suit. And here's his empty chair," the mayor said, pulling a chair from one of the dining tables and placing it next to the podium. That evening's TV news reports featured empty-chair footage and sound bites of Martinez's lambasting of Echevarria. The cameras also recorded the challenger at his headquarters, where he declined to discuss the matter. (Echevarria has since agreed to a second televised debate.)

Though Echevarria has steered clear of making personal criticisms of his opponent, Martinez and his supporters commenced their attacks early and have repeated them often: the challenger's alleged communist dealings; his lack of a high school diploma; his business failures; his large personal debts (Martinez forces claim that Echevarria, who two years ago told New Times he'd once been as much as half a million dollars in the hole, still owes hundreds of thousands, but Echevarria puts the current figure at $25,000); the fact that he was fined ($100) in 1987 by the state Commission on Ethics for voting on a zoning change to benefit a business in which he had a financial interest.

Echevarria, meanwhile, has restricted himself to criticizing things like Hialeah's high unemployment rate, economic stagnation in the city, and its failure to hire enough police officers, barely making mention of Martinez's well-documented legal problems and not questioning his character.

Of course, he doesn't need to, Martinez's backers point out.
"All the details haven't come out about Herman, but there's nothing Herman can say about Raul that everyone doesn't already know," says Luis Rojas.

But while they praise their candidate's intelligence and administrative skills, even Martinez's supporters acknowledge the mayor's often-difficult personality. "Hey, he's arrogant," admits Rojas, an admirer of Martinez despite the flaws. "Raul has a lot of internal personality things that don't make him a good politician. He's a loner; he doesn't surround himself with a circle of advisers. He alienates people sometimes. He got elected very young, a very brash rising Cuban star, and he has always been a guy who doesn't listen well."

Many of his formerly devoted followers are now either working for Echevarria or have withdrawn from any political connections, a drastic measure in a town so consumed by political discourse that such a move is comparable to quitting cafe cubano cold turkey. Their ties to Martinez were emotional, and their breaks with him were emotional, though the reasons might have been politically pragmatic. A woman who runs one of Echevarria's phone banks says Martinez became her enemy after she supported a council candidate who was in disfavor with the mayor. "I worked in every one of his campaigns," recounts Dolores Losada. "Our children went to school together, he came to all of our parties. But he is a person who is very vengeful; if you're not with him, you're his enemy. I'll tell you, after all those years, it was a very painful thing to go through. I cried. But now Raul Martinez is nothing to me."

To vast segments of the city, however, Martinez remains the symbolic father of Hialeah -- especially to the thousands of newer arrivals who know only his leadership. It's that familial stature, argues pollster Sergio Bendixen, that will make it hard to reject him at the polls. "I've seen this, maybe not so much in local American politics but in Latin America," says Bendixen. "A guy founds a political party, gets elected, has a big following, and the young people grow up and want to get involved. They wait and wait, until finally they run against the father. Usually the father wins. People see it as disloyal to go against the guy who gave you everything. With Hispanics, culturally that's very important, not to disrespect the established leader.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >