Antunez for President!

They lined the walls, filled every seat, and stood two deep in the back of the West Miami City Hall chambers. Rarely had the Dade County Republican Party drawn such a crowd for its monthly conclave. And while the agenda contained plenty of interesting items -- including a resolution calling for a naval blockade of Cuba, and a series of speeches by local judicial candidates -- it was something else entirely that prompted the huge turnout this past Thursday, August 25.

Dade County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan was vying for the position of committeeman against Emiliano Antunez, a 32-year-old owner of a finance company in Hialeah and a political neophyte.

Republicans divide Dade into 40 committee districts, each of which may have up to four committeemen, with slots specifically reserved for two men and two women. Committeemen, who must reside within their district, act as neighborhood-level party organizers. It isn't a very glamorous job, and Mary Ellen Miller, chairman of the county Republican Party, says she can't remember the last time two people competed for a slot.

The seat had become vacant in July when committeeman Antonio Cartas died suddenly. Having been Cartas's alternate, Antunez immediately filed for the position. Then Kaplan filed, too.

"It's My Party and I'll Squash You If I Want To," a story in this past week's New Times, outlined Antunez's contention that Kaplan had attempted to run him out of the race. The Metro commissioner, Antunez alleged, had even offered to appoint him to the county's Zoning Appeals Board if he abandoned his bid. Other local GOP officials speculated that Kaplan intended to use the committeeman's post as a step toward taking over the local party chairmanship from Miller.

Kaplan vehemently denied offering Antunez a position on the Zoning Appeals Board. He did not rule out a run for county chairman of the Republican Party, explaining that a number of people had already approached him about the job. He also voiced criticism of the county GOP. "I want to get more active in the party, to make it more meaningful than perhaps it has been over the last few years," he asserted. "I think right now it's a moribund party. If I can help energize it, that is something I'm happy to do." (Kaplan was out of the country and could not be reached for comment after Thursday's election.)

Kaplan worked hard to win the race with Antunez. Committeemen reported that they received phone calls from the commissioner and his aides, urging them to cast their votes for him. And on Thursday, when they arrived at the West Miami City Hall, committeemen were handed copies of a notarized letter from Rosa Cartas, widow of the man whose seat Antunez and Kaplan were seeking to fill. The letter endorsed Kaplan and blasted Antunez for mounting "a vicious and deceitful campaign against Bruce.... If that young man, Bruce's opponent, thinks he can win by telling lies, by bringing in the liberal press to do his bidding, and by distorting Bruce's fine record, please show him, again, that we are above it all."

Many of those who attended the meeting, however, knew Antonio Cartas had recruited Antunez to be an alternate and had talked about retiring from his post so the younger man could take over. Further, party officials point out that Rosa Cartas, who friends say is in her seventies, has only a limited grasp of the English language and is unlikely to have written the letter herself. (Attempts to contact Rosa Cartas for comment were unsuccessful.)

Thursday's election proceedings opened with each candidate giving three-minute speeches. After that the 98 committeemen present were called to the front of the room one at a time to turn in their ballots. County Chairman Mary Ellen Miller had recruited David Leahy, Dade's elections supervisor, to oversee the balloting. Leahy took the ballots to another room, where they were counted three times in the presence of representatives from Kaplan's and Antunez's camps.

The final tally: 50 votes for Antunez and 47 for Kaplan (the 98th ballot was illegible).

"Originally I wasn't sure who I was going to vote for," says one committeeman. "But it became obvious what Bruce was trying to do. I can spot a power play a mile away, and this was a power play. And I didn't think it was right. Mary Ellen Miller is a gentle lady, a classy person, and to speak poorly of the job she has done was wrong. So I voted for Emiliano."

Others second the sentiment. "His approach to this was all wrong," offers another committeeman. "He obviously was taking advice from people who didn't know what they were talking about."

Late Thursday night Antunez was officially sworn in as the new Republican committeeman for District 19. The new party official says he and Kaplan subsequently shook hands, and Kaplan graciously wished him good luck in the new post. Miller, Antunez adds, has advised him to consider offering Kaplan his old job of alternate, which in effect would make Kaplan his assistant.

"I'll think about it," says Antunez. "But I don't think it's going to happen.