By Christmas, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Seijas's reign could be over. A band of rebels threatens her imperial grip.
Last month the anti-Seijas commandos set up a bunker in the heart of her Hialeah stronghold. From inside a warehouse near Okeechobee Road, they plot ways to convince voters to recall the 69-year-old on December 19.
The insurgency identifies itself as the Committee for Positive Change, but until recently it operated under a more audacious title: Committee for the Recall of Miami-Dade Commissioners. It comprises 25 activists who earned their stripes fighting a commercial airport at the former air force base in Homestead, opposing dynamite-blasting and rock-mining in West Miami-Dade, preserving landmarks like the Hialeah Racetrack, and halting development near the Everglades.
Seijas describes them simply as "people I despise."
On a recent evening outside the rebels' bunker, a slender Cuban-American fellow with a boyish grin puffed on a Marlboro Light near his dark red Ford pickup truck. Miami Lakes resident Luis Sanchez is in a way the perfect frontman for the movement. A 45-year-old, he was arrested for civil disobedience in 2000 when he blocked the entrance to the Port of Miami with his truck to protest the federal government's seizure of Elián González. The charges were subsequently dropped.
He has, let's just say, some complaints about Seijas. "She's never done anything about the rock miners," Sanchez groused in a gravelly voice. "I've got all these cracks in my walls and my driveway from the blasting. And she's just a mean person. The only way she gets things done is through harassment and intimidation."
Recalls in Miami-Dade are about as common as skunk ape sightings in the Everglades. In fact Seijas, who declined to comment for this story, is the first county commissioner to face such a vote since 1972, when citizens removed Commissioners Robert Hardy Matheson, Alex Gordon, Earl J. Carroll, and Ben Shepard after they refused to build a promised public hospital.
Seijas has done everything possible to undermine the recall; she has relentlessly accused petitioners of forgery and deception. And she has apparently called in political chits. Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and Miami-Dade Police union president John Rivera have supported her. Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin at first declared the recall petition invalid, but a judge overturned his decision. She has even cadged cops and state prosecutors into intimidating the rebels under the guise of a fraud investigation. "It is the closest thing to a police state," comments activist Pat Wade.
The pol has also played the race card with the precision of a Texas hold 'em world champion. This past May, on Spanish-language TV station Telemiami 41, Seijas said her enemies were "anti-Cuban." "These are a bunch of racists from South Dade who don't want us in power," Seijas rattled. "They want everything for themselves. People really need to be careful about opening their doors. They will do anything, including lie to you about being my friend, to get your signature."
The battle has spilled over into an even more significant war regarding the county's future. A month after deciding the commissioner's fate, voters will return to the polls January 23 to choose whether to radically expand county Mayor Carlos Alvarez's powers, giving him control over the hiring and firing of department heads as well as running county government day-to-day.
Seijas is the mayor's number one opponent. She recently led the county commission's charge to hire lawyers, at taxpayer expense, to fight the strong-mayor petition. And on November 29, she suggested cutting the mayor's salary from $229,083 to $12,000. (She later backpedaled.)
Responds Alvarez: "Quite frankly I am just fed up with her. This ... was extremely childish. She's like the kid who loses something and she has to get back at the person who won."
Then he adds, "She tried so hard so the citizens of this county couldn't vote."
It was a few minutes past 1:00 p.m. this past November 14, and Seijas had just adjourned a committee meeting. She sauntered through the narrow corridor leading from the chamber to the commissioners' offices at the Stephen P. Clark Center.
The Cuban-American matron, dressed in a snappy tan business suit, was shadowed by her chief of staff, Terry Murphy. Scowling as she often does, the commissioner carefully tended to her left arm, which was wrapped in a cast and a sling.
A reporter asked if recall PAC spokesman Michael Pizzi, a Miami Lakes councilman whom Seijas suspects of coveting her commission seat, had anything to do with her fractured limb. "Believe me, Pizzi would have more than a broken arm if he tried putting a finger on me," she retorted.
Born and raised in Havana, where she earned an arts degree in design from the University of Villanueva, Seijas emigrated to Miami in 1959. She has three children and three grandkids. She is divorced from Roberto Millan.
There's little in the public record of her first few decades in the United States. In 1981 she took a job at Switchboard of Miami, a family crisis assistance organization, fielding calls on the suicide prevention hotline. After ten years there, she went to work for the YMCA of Greater Miami.
In 1987 Seijas (who went by her married surname for years) became the first Cuban-American woman elected to the Hialeah City Council. After serving on the council for five years, Seijas got her shot at a higher office when a 1993 court ruling forced the county to elect commissioners from single-member districts to increase minority representation. Seijas raised close to $100,000 and outspent three opponents to secure her spot on the dais. In 1996 she was re-elected without opposition, and in 2000 she soundly beat former Republican state Sen. Roberto Casas.
In 2004 Seijas easily won re-election against three marginal candidates. "I sit here today because of the will of the people in my district," she said recently.
She has done well financially during her time on the commission. Today she is vice president of government relations for the YMCA, earning a $52,499 annual salary. According to her most recent financial disclosure, Seijas also receives $33,517 in commission salary and executive benefits, plus $18,631 from social security. Since 2001, her net worth has more than doubled: from $186,014 to $395,324 last year. She listed as assets her home in Hialeah and a property in Coral Springs that she says are worth a combined $181,810. (According to the Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser, her two-bedroom house had a market value of $149,640 in 2005 and is worth $202,000 today.)
Seijas has also become a political powerhouse. One supporter is Robaina, who benefited from the commissioner's support during his successful 2005 campaign against Casas. "During Hurricane Wilma, she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me, helping residents," Robaina boasts. "She had the unions out here putting up blue tarps, passing out supplies. She delivers for Hialeah."
Indeed Seijas this spring championed Robaina's request on behalf of a group of private builders including Armando Codina to open up 1100 acres for industrial parks and offices. The planned construction was outside the urban development boundary a state-mandated limit that prevents urban sprawl and protects the Everglades. On April 19, Seijas voted in favor of the plan and three other developers' schemes to build beyond the UDB. (The proposals were killed by other commissioners.)
Seijas has also "stood shoulder-to-shoulder" with the Dade County Farm Bureau, a 3500-member group of South Dade land owners who, among other things, advocate for opening agricultural land for development. She recently gave the group $10,000 from her commission office discretionary fund for marketing. On November 17, the bureau hosted a fundraiser that raised $8000 to fight the recall. "We've found her to be very reasonable and accessible," relays executive director Katie Edwards. "She has gone above and beyond to hear our concerns."
But some members of the public have seen Seijas's darker side.
For example, during a June 15, 2005 committee meeting to discuss the police department's use of Tasers on rowdy minors, Seijas recollected that some black onlookers had once mocked her at a commission meeting. When African-American Baptist minister Bishop Victor T. Curry (who was chosen just a month ago as leader of the Miami-Dade NAACP) responded that those individuals were not members of his congregation, Seijas snapped back: "Some of them looked like you." She also referred to blacks in the audience as "you people."
An infuriated Curry stormed out of the commission chamber. On his radio program later that day, the pastor dubbed the commissioner "Natacha Millan Racist Seijas."
Faye Davis, who was also present for the diatribe, compares Seijas's use of the term you people to "calling me a nigger ...," and adds, "[The commissioner] is everything that is wrong with Miami-Dade County." Davis is a past president of the Progressive Firefighters Association, which accuses the county of hiring too few blacks for the fire department.
Adds Overtown activist Marva Lightbourne: "To me she's no better than [disgraced former state Rep. Ralph] Arza."
The commissioner doesn't offend only blacks. At 4:10 a.m. on September 19, 2002, then-county commission Chairwoman Gwen Margolis was trying to wrap up a marathon budget hearing, but Seijas kept clucking about a shortfall for an elderly meals program.
"You know, today is the day you might just leave here in a body bag," Seijas hissed. Then she repeated it. A visibly frightened Margolis gulped down medicine for high blood pressure.
Though prosecutors concluded Seijas did not mean to harm Margolis, and the commissioner later sent a letter of apology, Margolis recently donated $300 to the recall PAC.
And Seijas has been at the center of several other controversies:
In 1995 former county manager, lobbyist, and Seijas confidante Sergio Pereira introduced the commissioner to his client Cynthia Lazarus, owner of Bella Bagno, a company pitching a state-of-the-art contraption that, with the push of a button, would automatically dispense a clear plastic sleeve around a toilet seat. Later that year, the commission approved a no-bid purchase for 625 of the high-tech commodes at $8219 per seat.
Between 1996 and 1998, Seijas racked up $19,450 in taxpayer-funded trips across the continental United States and around the globe, including a $4300 trip to Madrid and Seville.
In 1997 Seijas intervened on behalf of Odebrecht Contractors of Florida in the company's dispute with county officials regarding cost overruns for a garage at Miami International Airport. The commissioner helped negotiate a favorable settlement for Odebrecht for $3.2 million. The Brazilian-based construction firm remains one of Seijas's biggest supporters, donating $50,000 to her employer's 90th-anniversary gala last month. Odebrecht CEO Gilberto Neves, who donated the maximum individual contribution to Seijas's last two campaigns, also served as the YMCA event's chairman.
It's early Friday evening this past November 10 at the Billiard Club in Miami Lakes. Recall committee members and guests mingle in a private lounge area of the smoky sports bar during an informal fundraiser. Committee Chairman Luis Sanchez sips a mug of beer while smoking a cigarette. Treasurer and Kendall-based accountant McHenry "Hank" Hamilton chows on a plate of meatballs and chicken tenders. John and Pat Wade chat with fellow committee organizer and former community Councilwoman Millie Herrera.
Michael Pizzi, Seijas political rival and Miami Lakes councilman, gathers the crowd around a pool table. Depeche Mode's "I Just Can't Get Enough" blares loudly over the sound system. "Unfortunately we are not going to raise $10 million," intones Pizzi, who's dressed in a dapper two-piece suit and matching loafers. "We're not going to have money for banquets at catering halls or have developers and lobbyists lining up to give us $500 contributions. But what we have is the will of the people.
"Natacha Seijas and her friends don't believe in democracy! How many of you are going to knock on doors? Stand on street corners? How many of you are going to send our message that we are tired of corruption? How many of you are going to tell people to vote yes on December 19?"
The rabble responds with a resounding "Yeah!"
But there's a problem. The committee needs cash. "We'll take whatever you got," Pizzi continues. "If you only have ten cents, give ten cents. If you have $10 million, give $10 million. Right now we don't even have money to buy T-shirts."
The recall began sometime in mid- to late-January with talk among neighbors throughout the county. Pizzi and Sanchez were frustrated by Seijas's failure to curb dynamite-blasting in Northwest Dade. Hamilton was fed up with the commission's effort to stop the East Kendall incorporation. The Wades had grown tired of fighting developers' plans to build in the Everglades. "In my twenty years of community activism, I have never seen a county commission that is so at war with the citizens," opined Pat Wade during a recent conversation. "The system is broken. How do we change it?"
One day about 25 people including Sanchez, Pizzi, Hamilton, Herrera, and the Wades representing seven commission districts, gathered in a lunch room. "I can't remember who suggested recall," Pat Wade said. "But once someone said recall, the hardest part was picking a commissioner to go after, since everyone wanted theirs to go first."
After some discussion, Seijas's name emerged. Joe Martinez, Dennis Moss, and new chairman Bruno Barreiro were also mentioned. The group formed the Committee for Recall of Miami-Dade Commissioners in early February. Sanchez, a Miami Lakes resident, was elected the group's chairman and the lead petitioner. The recall PAC had to collect more than 3000 signatures in Seijas's district, home to 59,187 mostly Hispanic Republican voters, to hold an election.
By November 24, the recall PAC had raised only $43,868, with most of the donations coming from four committee members. Hamilton, the Wades, and Pizzi contributed $23,100.
Most of the money was used for legal fees and to pay canvassers to help collect 6177 signatures, which were submitted on April 21. A month later, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin deemed 3978 signatures inadmissible because petitioners had failed to print their own names on each page. The recall PAC sued, and on September 21, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick ruled in favor of the petitioners.
Trawick said Ruvin's finding "failed to serve [as] a valid basis to prevent voter fraud." Recall PAC member Millie Herrera charged that Ruvin, a former county commissioner with a University of Miami law degree, disqualified the signatures to protect Seijas. "It was an absolutely political move," she said. "With his experience as a lawyer, he should know the intent of the voter has to be protected."
Ruvin scoffed at the allegation. "I acted without any political motivation," he said. "I was just doing my job."
Since the recall movement's inception, Seijas has impugned her opponents' credibility. The signature-gatherers posed as county employees and "broke into people's houses when they wouldn't open their doors," Seijas ranted at an April 19 county commission hearing.
Another effective weapon for Seijas has been Spanish-language media. In March, as the rebels were collecting their first signatures, Seijas appeared on Radio Mambí (710 AM). "Beware the people who knock on your doors who say they work for me," she warned. "They are delinquents who want to take away your meal programs and all the good things we have accomplished."
Responds recall committee member Millie Herrera, who was in charge of the paid canvassers: "She has slandered us as criminals and delinquents. She doesn't fight fair."
Meanwhile Seijas's allies have rallied around her. Two political action committees, largely funded by developers, businessmen, and lobbyists who have long supported Seijas, have mailed propaganda to voters and filed lawsuits against the recall group. John Rivera, president of the county police union, sent letters to Hialeah residents warning of petitioners disguised as Miami-Dade Elections Department employees.
One of the PACs, People Improving Our Neighborhoods, raised $12,000 between January and April. Longtime Seijas supporters and real estate developers Masoud Shojaee and Pedro Adrian gave $4500 and $4000, respectively. Shojaee and Adrian had both proposed massive developments outside the urban development boundary. (The developers withdrew their applications before the county commission could vote on them.)
Felix Lasarte, a zoning lawyer with Holland & Knight whose clients include Shojaee, helped form the PAC. "Seijas has served her district well for a very long time," Lasarte says.
Another pro-Seijas PAC, Citizens to Protect the People's Choice, collected $185,000 between April and November. PAC treasurer Daniel Hernandez has been Seijas's campaign treasurer during her three previous elections. "I've known her since before she entered politics," Hernandez says. "She is a woman of great integrity."
Developer Sergio Pino put up $26,000 through five of his corporations. Affordable housing builder and ex-Hialeah Councilman Silvio Cardoso ponied up $8500 through seven of his companies. Adrian gave $6000, and Shojaee donated $5000.
That PAC has spent $77,860 to pay election law and civil rights attorney Stephen Cody to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the recall group against the county.
It's here that Seijas's connection to the strong-mayor vote surfaces. Cody simultaneously represents Citizens for Open Government, a PAC formed to fight the petition; it is funded by pro-Seijas developers including Shojaee and Adrian, who kicked in $50,000. The anti-strong mayor's treasurer is Hernandez, who insists Seijas is not involved. "When we started this effort, I told Natacha to stay out of it," he says. "I told her not to worry about what we were doing."
About 5:00 on a recent afternoon, John Wade was tending some foliage near the lush front yard of his Redland home when an unmarked Miami-Dade Police car pulled into his driveway. Out stepped public corruption unit Dets. Javier Garcia and Jeanine Robinson. They were part of a multiagency task force investigating allegations that the committee to recall Seijas submitted forged signatures to the county clerk.
The detectives wanted to know if Pat was home. Then they asked the couple to provide a sworn statement. The Wades agreed on the condition they be allowed to tape-record the interview. "We weren't going to be intimidated," Pat says.
The police carried blown-up black-and-white copies of the couple's driver's licenses and interviewed them for three hours. They asked why the committee was formed and how the recall PAC obtained signatures, even questioning whether they had folded the top of the petition so people couldn't read what they were signing.
They wanted to know why the Wades had a beef with Seijas. "Were any circulators ever paid by the number of names collected?" Robinson inquired. "Where did the funds come from to pay the circulators? Was there any training given to either paid or volunteer circulators?"
The couple balked at the detectives' request for handwriting samples. "They wanted us to write out this whole paragraph," Pat says incredulously. "I don't believe handwriting analysis is a science."
Overtown activist Marva Lightbourne, who collected ten signatures, has also been contacted by authorities. She was on her way to M. Athalie Range's viewing when Det. Mike Holmes approached her about scheduling an interview. "I was busy that afternoon, but I told him I would contact him later," Lightbourne says. "But he insisted on asking me a couple of questions. Who was my main contact on the recall committee? Where did I collect signatures? Did I fold over the petition?"
On November 13, Joe Centorino, head of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office Public Corruption Unit, sent a letter to Seijas, Ruvin, the recall PAC, and elections supervisor Lester Sola, explaining that he and others had opened a criminal probe into faked signatures on the recall group's petition.
In the letter, Centorino stated the probe was based on allegations from 34 people who claim their signatures were forged. He claimed another 66 residents reported the petitioners lied to them.
During an interview, Centorino said the investigation was initiated based on information provided by Seijas, including affidavits she collected from voters claiming they did not sign the petition or were misled. "When we receive allegations of fraud in the electoral process, we can't ignore it," he commented. "We have an obligation to investigate."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also investigating, Centorino said.
Pat Wade accuses the state attorney and the cops of providing Seijas with political cover. "I've never seen anything like this," she fumes. "They are visiting us in pairs, and it is never the same detective. They are putting in a lot of man hours."
Miami-Dade Police Det. Luis Rodriguez, who is in charge of the probe, declined to comment. But he denied political motivation. "At the conclusion, we're going to show that we had legitimate reasons for conducting this investigation," Rodriguez said.
Seijas seems to be relishing her handiwork. At a recent county commission meeting, she offered an ominous revelation. "The Herreras, the Wades, and the Pizzis of the world," she cackled, "I'm going to take care of them."
With the recall election less than a week away, the odds are in Seijas's favor. During early voting at Hialeah's John F. Kennedy Library on December 5, three buses filled with viejitas wearing T-shirts and holding signs that read "Amigas de Natacha" cast their ballots to keep the veteran pol in office.
Three days later, Seijas personally delivered a busload of elderly voters to the library after she had taken them out for breakfast. When the commissioner caught sight of the recall PAC's volunteers outside the library, she berated them, says Lourdes Aguirre, a Hialeah community activist. "She yelled at them in Spanish," Aguirre describes. "She said, öWhy are you here? You don't belong here. What have I done to you personally?'"
"She has the machinery and the money to win," Mayor Alvarez offered recently on The Jim DeFede Show on WINZ-AM (940). "She has been at it a long time."
Recall leader Pat Wade admits the group's effort is a long shot. Alvarez's public endorsement of the recall will help the PAC gain ground. "Let's face it, we're just a rag-tag group with no money," Wade concedes. "With the mayor being so popular and so visible, it can only help us."
Interestingly Wade did not vote for Alvarez in 2004. "I had visions of a police state. He came across as a cold guy. But I was wrong." Wade and her husband will also vote and campaign for Alvarez's strong-mayor proposal. "Sure, we could get some son of a bitch in there," Wade says. "But when the whole county can vote him out of office, it makes the idea very attractive. We can have one person accountable to everyone."
Meanwhile the county commission has taken steps to make it more difficult for citizens to mount petitions against the county commission in the future. This past November 28, commissioners approved a new ordinance that would impose 60-day jail sentences and $500 fines against people who deliberately mislead others when encouraging them to sign. Of course, the ordinance will be hard to enforce, according to County Attorney Murray Greenberg. "It will be difficult to prove that someone's statement was both misleading and intentional," Greenberg said.
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A companion measure makes petition drives even tougher by allowing only one signature per page and allowing signers to later withdraw their Hancocks. Thankfully Mayor Alvarez is considering a veto of both ordinances because they will make petition drives impossible.
Even if Alvarez vetoes, the county commission will most likely override it. And Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz, who drafted the new law, is planning on introducing a third bill that would allow only registered voters to circulate petitions and collect signatures.
"I'm surprised they don't have us lugging around a typewriter so we can print people's names," Pat Wade cracks. "But I'm sure they thought of it."