Three Scenes from the Political Stage
Clearly, Steve Clark's security detail was nervous. Having finished his victory speech, the newly elected Miami mayor was in the midst of a series of television interviews when the throng of well-wishers began pressing closer, surrounding the television cameramen on their two-foot-high platform. "Get back, get back!" one plainclothes detective yelled. "No one else on the platform!" But the crowd continued to push, craning to catch a glimpse of this 69-year-old man, who hasn't been the focus of so much attention in decades.
Clark never was one to elicit much enthusiasm. In the late Sixties, during his first stint as Miami's mayor, and more recently, during his two decades as county mayor, he always seemed to move easily within a crowd. Cutting ribbons and handing out ceremonial keys to the city was about as strenuous as it got, a strategy of glad-handing and backslapping that kept him in office. This night, however, was different.
The original plan called for Clark to mingle, thanking his supporters for their hard work and financial support. But although there had been no specific threats against the mayor-elect, given the fanaticism of Miriam Alonso's supporters, nobody wanted to take chances. "He's not going to do the crowd," the plainclothes man informed the officers assembled on the makeshift stage as Clark wrapped up his last TV interview. "Too many people." The detective's eyes carefully scanned the eleventh-floor balcony of International Place, where nearly 1000 people had gathered to celebrate. "Looks like we may have to carry him off the platform and take him out the back."
Sweat pouring down his face, Clark appeared to be slightly disoriented by the crowd and the thrill of the moment. Or perhaps it was the bombardment of questions, the same questions asked six different times by six different television reporters, in two different languages, all in the span of about fifteen minutes.
Realizing how undignified it would look to cart off the city's new leader like a drunk being thrown out the back door of a tavern, the officers formed a flying wedge around Clark and began elbowing their way toward the platform's steps. Dozens of hands pawed through the protective V formation, reaching past the officers to tug on Clark's coat. "Steve, Steve!" screamed several newspaper photographers. "Wave, Steve. Wave!" Clark turned to see who was calling. "Wave, Steve! Wave!" Realizing what was required, he lifted his right arm only slightly, but it was enough to send the motor drives into action. As he turned to follow the detectives, a woman emerged out of nowhere, thrusting her baby in front of her. More out of instinct than affection, Clark kissed the child on the forehead. "Oh, he's kissing the baby," another woman in the crowd sighed as the procession made its way to an elevator that would whisk the mayor to a private suite where he could regain his equilibrium before another battery of interviews for the eleven o'clock news. "He's such a good man."
Steve Clark being propelled along by outside forces -- an apt omen for his upcoming term. In all his years in office, the affable mayor has never been burdened with labels like "revolutionary" or "man of vision." And that was just fine with those in attendance on election night. "He's a listener," explained Sherrill Hudson, a former president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and currently a managing partner in the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. "I think Steve will represent us very well in the business arena, both nationally and internationally."
Some, like lobbyist Chris Korge, were downright giddy with the possibilities inherent in a Clark administration. "We did it, baby!" Korge shouted, nearly jumping into the arms of Joaquin Avino when he spotted the county manager. "We did it. We really did it."
Mixing with the suits and the cell phones, though, was an odd assortment of characters who seemed more interested in celebrating an Alonso defeat than a Clark triumph. "I've known him for years and I think he is a fantastic person," said a tuxedo-clad Tony Bryant, self-professed black revolutionary and a leader of the militant anti-Castro group Comandos L. "But I really decided to support him because I didn't like Miriam Alonso. If she ever lifts her hand again to run for public office, I'll be there to slap it down."
The only consistent rumbling heard all evening concerned a serious shortage of bartenders, which at the party's zenith left Clark supporters backed up ten deep waiting for cocktails. If the mayor couldn't accomplish something as simple as keeping their glasses filled with Dewars, they joked, how could he solve all of the city's other problems?
Of course, somebody always comes along to rain on the parade. Early in the celebration, Alvino Monk, a black community activist, looked out across the horde of cheering Hispanics and white Anglos. "Where are all the black people?" he asked rhetorically. "This is ridiculous." The black vote -- 80 percent of which went to Clark -- was one of the keys to the mayor's victory, Monk pointed out, yet few black faces were present to herald hizzoner's win. "I think there was a significant investment on our parts getting him into office, and I think we need to see a likewise return on that investment," said Monk. "We need to be more actively involved, so why aren't we here in force? On that score," he added thoughtfully, "I'll say we need to share the blame. We should have known where the party was, but more of us also should have been told."
-- By Jim DeFede
Captain Polo wasn't moving one inch. A man of substantial girth, he had anchored himself to the one spot guaranteed to assure him maximum TV exposure, the spot where Miami Commissioner Miriam Alonso was expected -- any minute now -- to concede her defeat in last week's mayoral race. He wore a soiled guayabera and a baseball cap that announced his status as a veteran of Brigade 2506, the hapless invasion force overwhelmed at the Bay of Pigs 32 years ago. His disco-era sunglasses had one lens missing. The remaining lens resembled an eye patch, lending the captain (a.k.a. Leo Ramos) the air of an urban swashbuckler. His first mate, Pedro Rotea, stood nearby. Both men stared intently at the TV monitors in front of them.
While Steve Clark and company were boozing it up a few miles away in a downtown skyscraper, Alonso's election-night party was being held in a dingy Little Havana parking garage outside her campaign headquarters. A small portion of the garage, three parking spaces to be exact, had been roped off for the press conference, and two-dozen reporters were wedged into this area, trading rumors as to when Alonso would appear. Dour campaign workers milled outside the press section, mourning Alonso's resounding loss. None of the reporters was much interested in talking with her supporters. What was there to say?
What the reporters wanted was a good angle from which to record their shots of Alonso. And no one was more zealous in this regard than Angel Zayon, Channel 51's officious man-on-the-scene. Microphone tucked under one arm, a portable phone glued to his ear, the diminutive correspondent spent the evening prowling the press cage, guarding the optimum camera and microphone location. Now he was fit to be tied. While his back was turned, Ramos and Rotea had seized his spot.
Zayon marched over and asked them to step aside. The interlopers stared straight ahead, ignoring him. Zayon's entreaties gradually grew louder, until he was nearly shouting. He turned to his producer. He yelled into his phone. All to no avail. Captain Polo and his little buddy stayed put.
During Alonso's ill-fated campaign, the curious pair had become mascots of a sort. Former prisoners in Castro's Cuba, rabid anti-communists, both were quintessential Miriamistas. And both had an inexplicable lust for the spotlight. "We worked hard for Miriam's campaign and all that we ask is that we be allowed to appear on TV with her," Captain Polo grunted when asked why he refused to budge.
Apparently he didn't understand -- or care -- that the picture he presented, even on TV, was not that of a proud warrior but of a somewhat deranged self-promoter. A Cuban crazy. An embarrassment. Precisely the same negative images, in other words, that had torpedoed Alonso's once-promising campaign.
But few astute political observers believe that Clark affirmatively won last week's election as much as Alonso squandered her opportunity. After four years of edging toward the mainstream, away from the extremism that marked her early political career, she seemed to panic. When early polls revealed the race to be a dead heat, the practiced politician disappeared and he dragon lady emerged. She failed to exploit her intricate knowledge of city issues against the doddering Clark. She all but ignored the voting record she had so carefully established in four years on the commission. Instead she roared ethnically divisive appeals. She clung desperately to the outdated belief that whipping up her aging army would be enough. And though she proved to be adept at planting herself in front of reporters' microphones throughout the campaign, the figure she projected was pure Captain Polo.
Just after 10:00 p.m., Alonso appeared at her headquarters, fluttering in amid a phalanx of frowning aides. The crowd had grown to perhaps a hundred, but at this fateful moment no other political luminaries were to be seen, not even those who backed her during the race. No Bruce Kaplan. No Richard Dunn. No Armando Valladares. After embracing her daughter, the loser somberly recited a short speech and answered questions from the press. What little she said appeared to suggest she still didn't get it.
"For all of you who want to hear it, I am proud to be a Cuban," Alonso announced defiantly. "When I went to visit Little Haiti, I told them I am proud to be a Cuban. When I went to Liberty City, I told them I am proud to be a Cuban. I know where I'm from, and because of this I know where I'm going!"
It was this declaration -- along with hints that she would run again for public office -- that provoked the loudest cheers.
But even in defeat, drubbed by a tired old man, Alonso refused to take the high road. She showed no deference toward Clark, urging him only to "clean up his act" and "pay attention to the little people, not just the big-business interests." Asked whether she felt the Cuban community had "lost the election," she told one English-language station, "If we don't move forward, yes. But Miami is larger than all of us." To Spanish-language reporters, however, she repeated her contention that "we [Cubans] lost a seat tonight." In a statement that was at once self-pitying and accusatory, Alonso concluded, "The rejection may be of my place of origin."
Within half an hour, the sad spectacle was over. Alonso disappeared into her white Cadillac with her bodyguard and her loyal husband, Leonel. The reporters and cameramen were gone a few minutes later, leaving only a few diehards to pick up the meager decorations. Captain Polo was one of the last to leave, and he looked dejected. The spotlight he worked so hard to grab had disappeared so quickly.
-- By Steven Almond and Stan Yarbro
If you weren't right there, jammed in with the off-duty police officers, private security guards, and cheering loved ones and acolytes, you strained for a momentary glimpse of Raul Martinez making his way to the platform outside his campaign headquarters. In the dark, with the pure-white television lights washing out colors and giving the scene a stark, disjointed, old-movie feel, Martinez's advance to the stage acquired an epic and spectacular quality. "He walks through the crowd like Moses," offered an admiring friend and campaign worker. Martinez's neatly groomed head rose above the crowd, dipping, turning, glistening with perspiration in the overheated Hialeah night.
Perhaps in another context, in a different city, Martinez would be lashing out at his enemies, bitterly claiming vindication after three and a half years of living with the disgrace of his indictment and conviction for public corruption. But Hialeah is a place apart, where not all rules and precedents necessarily apply. He spoke little about his legal problems, though he alluded frequently to the batalla dificil he and his family fought to preserve, or restore, his political honor.
He didn't publicly promise vengeance on his enemies, but before the TV cameras, Martinez embraced Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bola*os, a gesture that ensured the city's volatile political factions would remain at war. Bola*os, whom Martinez had appointed before his suspension, has been the target of several ouster attempts by Martinez's enemies.
And who knows what Martinez said privately to other political figures who showed up to congratulate him, among them State Senator Roberto Casas and Hialeah City Council members Alex Morales and Carmen Caldwell. The headquarters itself was barred to everyone but family and loyal workers most of the night. In public, moving amid a hugging and kissing onslaught, Martinez beamed; he spoke of el carino, el calor, the affection and the warmth of the people -- "my people," he repeated -- and he thanked his people, over and over, in Spanish: "Mil, pero mil gracias." He addressed them almost solely in Spanish, but doing so lacked the defiance and significance of Miriam Alonso's aggressive ethnic appeal across town in Miami. Here in the city of immigrants, where virtually the entire population is Hispanic, you don't make a point of speaking Spanish; you just speak it.
For hours before Martinez's arrival, which came only after his mayoral victory seemed assured, the parking lot of the former video store on West 49th Street had been packed. Some people brought their own lawn chairs; many carried big campaign signs that read, "Raul: Ahora mas que nunca" (now more than ever), and they stood on the sidewalk or in the median, waving their placards to the sounds of whistles and sirens and nonstop honking horns from passing cars and trucks.
Just down the street was the headquarters of Martinez's opponent, Nilo Juri. There, too, the faithful gathered outside with signs and whistles. But not as many. And their enthusiasm didn't match the all-out passion at Martinez headquarters. La Orquesta Calle H, the leader of which is an old friend of the mayor, played sones and rumbas. Two paunchy middle-age women in polyester pants and T-shirts, with identical silver coiffures and cigarettes between their teeth, danced while holding aloft their signs. A group of teenagers wearing campaign shirts joined in and moved to the music. An old woman twirled in circles. A couple gyrated atop an oddly shaped wooden spool that must have been dragged from a factory or construction site. Reminders were everywhere of Hialeah's blue-collar roots that go back even to the provincial origins of its majority Cuban population.
The pungent aroma of paella wafted from two giant cauldrons, each about eight feet wide. Watermelon, vegetables, sandwiches, and cakes were also set out. A neighboring tent sheltered several overwhelmed bartenders. Among the happy citizens overwhelming those bartenders was Juan Chavez, a dental laboratory worker who is missing a couple of front teeth. "When Raul was mayor, the city was happy," shouted Chavez above the blare of the band. "He is a good administrative man."
Indeed, nearly everyone talked about how good things were when Martinez was in charge, and how terrible they have been since then. "I want to go back to four years ago," Martinez said from the stage. "I want this city to return to what it was before." Before his brilliant career was hijacked by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Before Hialeah sailed into its current financial straits. "He's the man people want," advised Luis Sanchez, a grizzled, eloquent heavy-equipment salesman who had been enjoying the free bar. "We have a man convicted of racketeering, but we still vote for him. He's a crook, but we don't care. We want him."
Does time march on in Hialeah, as it does everywhere else, or will Martinez recapture his past glory? Will his victory, as he has proclaimed so quotably, really mean a victory for his community, his Hialeah? Most of the partyers, dancing and singing into the early morning, weren't worrying about that. But real estate salesman and former boxing star Frank Otero, seated on a curb drinking red wine and eating a ham sandwich, mused about the moment. He had known the mayor-elect since their days at Hialeah High School, when Martinez, child of a journalist whose family still operates a newspaper in Hialeah, wrote articles for the school paper about Otero's incipient boxing career. "They ran out of scotch," Otero lamented. "I can't help wondering: Is that a portent of things to come in the administration?"
-- By Kathy Glasgow
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.