On a dreary afternoon this past September 29, dozens of Hialeah firefighters, police officers, and city employees marched near the entrance to city hall at 501 Palm Ave. Some held signs that read, "Julio Robaina, Hialeah is the city of poverty and it's your fault," and "Julio Robaina: What did you do with the money?"
One of the sign holders was Jorge Aguilar, a parks worker with 21 years of service. He clears $390 every two weeks after taxes. He's also one of hundreds of city employees whose annual base pay was slashed by 20 to 30 percent last fall by Mayor Robaina and the Hialeah City Council. Also approved: forced furloughs and higher health care costs.
By contrast, Robaina cut only seven percent of his $155,242 salary and kept a $117,000 expense account. Alex Vega, Hialeah's budget director lost a paltry three percent of his yearly $116,967.
"This is an abuse of power," Aguilar groused. "He wants us to make sacrifices, but [his] friends are not affected."
Despite the discontent on Palm Avenue, Robaina is the early favorite to replace Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who will likely face a recall election later this year. Even without a recall, his term expires 2012.
Entering year two of his second and final four-year term as mayor, Robaina is still playing coy. Despite three requests for an interview, and a list of questions faxed and emailed to his office, he declined to comment for this story.
Robaina has solid backers in the county's Cuban-American mecca, has established himself as one of the state's leading Republican fundraisers, and has demonstrated he's not afraid to take on the powerful police and fire unions. All of this gives him an advantage over potential opponents such as Miami-Dade County Commissioners Carlos Gimenez and Joe Martinez.
The only declared candidates so far are former state Rep. Marcelo Llorrente and two unknowns.
But Robaina's ambitions could get derailed if opponents capitalize on his questionable job as Hialeah mayor. Not only has he slashed low-paid workers' salaries while barely trimming his own, he's mixed private and public business while allowing a high-ranking city administrator to accommodate his girlfriend with a well-paying city job.
"Robaina has gotten the unions very angry," notes Miami political consultant Dario Moreno. "But in today's political environment, that is an asset. All candidates who had union support in the recent general election went down in defeat."
David Custin, a political campaign manager who has guided Mario Diaz-Balart and other big-name Republicans to victory, gives Robaina the edge because Hialeah is the center of the Cuban-American electoral base. For his 2009 re-election campaign, Robaina won with more than 90 percent of the vote and raised a half-million dollars. "When you have a candidate coming out of Hialeah, they are strongly positioned in a countywide or general election," Custin says. "It is a historical and tactical fact."
Lobbyist and Republican party fundraiser Jorge Luis Lopez says Robaina increased his profile by actively campaigning and raising money during recent elections for GOP candidates such as Miami-Dade School Board member Perla Tabares Hantman, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, U.S. Congressman-elect David Rivera, and U.S. Senator-elect Marco Rubio. "You have to believe Robaina is broadening his base," Lopez says. "He has shown he can deliver votes in Hialeah, and that can be huge."
In positioning himself to run for higher office, his enemies — from union leaders to former allies such as ex-Hialeah police chief Rolando Bolaños Sr. — have been actively exposing the seedier side of Robaina's administration.
For example, Robaina's critics have often cited the case of Hialeah budget head Alexander Vega, who in 2008 was accused by his then-estranged wife of having an affair with one of his subordinates, internal auditor Ana Maria Gonzalez. In February 2009, Vega transferred his girlfriend — now his wife — to a newly created job in the city's Department of Education and Community Services that pays $74,000 per year. Robaina approved the transfer, according to Gonzalez's employee file.
"This is the type of preferential treatment that Robaina perpetuates," says parks employee Aguilar. "Yet the hard workers get screwed."
Then there are the questions about Robaina's personal ethics. As reported by New Times in August, Robaina has made private business deals with vendors who have contracts with the city, creating more conflicts of interest.
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And he still hasn't addressed his business relationship with admitted $40 million Ponzi schemer Luis Felipe Perez, who in 2006 repaid a $100,000 loan with 18 percent annual interest to Robaina's wife in less than a year. "The longer these scandals hang over Robaina's head, the tougher time he will have convincing voters he would be a good county mayor," Dario Moreno says.
Already, Hialeah voters are starting to turn on the mayor. This past November, 54-year-old Cuban-American Guillermo Rodriguez complained that Robaina's budget cuts resulted in fewer police patrols inside Lago Grande, a 2000-unit residential development. Rodriguez owns a three-bedroom townhouse there since 1999.
"We've got teenage boys drinking beers and smoking pot in the parking lot on the weekends," Rodriguez says. "It wasn't like that three months ago. Yet Robaina can find money to increase the budget for his annual mayor's gala by $5,000. He's a joke."
Rodriguez's neighbor, Felix Nuñez, says Robaina has too much baggage: Making sure the residents of Hialeah are safe is more important than making sure your buddy's main squeeze gets taken care of."