Raquel Regalado Took On the Establishment; Now She Wants to Run It

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At the age of 4, the precocious Raquelita began recording kids' roles in commercials. At the radio station, she also met the various giants of Florida politics who were her parents' guests: Lawton Chiles, Dante Fascell, Bob Graham.

But no one made an impression quite like Janet Reno. It was while Raquelita sat in the station listening to her mom interview the Miami native and then-U.S. attorney general that the then-7-year-old realized women could hold political office. Once the interview finished, she rushed to stop Reno in the station's elevator and peppered her with questions about how it was possible that a woman could be chosen for that job. "Do I have to be as tall as you?" Raquelita asked.

In school, young Raquel was a perfectionist. "She would come and cry if she got a 99," her dad says. By eighth grade, her last year at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School, she was tall, slim, and pretty. But she never spent time passing notes to boys or drawing cutesy hearts like most of the other girls. She was the leader who always made friends with even the shiest kids. But she was also seemingly on a different level, more interested in debating global politics than gossiping about boys. "She was like a little adult," says Esperanza Martinez, Raquelita's middle-school social studies teacher, "a little girl, but incredibly articulate."

The elder Raquel Regalado, intent on turning her daughter into a performer, enrolled her in ballet, flamenco, and acting classes. She also regularly told her she could be "either a hammer or a nail," so she might as well be a hammer. Raquelita, whose ambition and confidence were already strong, learned the lesson well. Martinez remembers that during a lesson on the federal government's three branches, her star student announced, unprompted, that one day she would be president. "Everyone turned around," Martinez recalls. But none of the students sneered. "I looked at her and I knew. I said, 'You know what? I think this kid can do it.'"

A few years later, Raquelita was offered an internship with Democratic political legend Bob Graham, then a U.S. senator. For two high-school summers, she tagged along as Graham carried out his famous "workdays" campaign, trying out the lives of various workers in an effort to better understand the public he served. For Regalado, who now considers herself a moderate Republican, the impact was monumental. "Years later," she says, when she was running for school board and asked about a childhood hero, "my father was heartbroken when I said Bob Graham."

The elder Raquel Regalado was a giant in the South Florida Cuban community. In addition to her two immensely popular radio call-in politics shows, Lo Que Otros No Dicen ("What Others Won't Say") and Panorama, she was renowned as a political voice and journalist, as well as a human rights advocate -- for years she attended the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

But in January 2008, when she was 60 years old, Raquel came down with food poisoning. The illness, caused by a bacterial infection in her liver, unexpectedly worsened, and she was placed on dialysis. She then had a heart attack, and doctors decided she required open-heart surgery. If her mom had made it through the first 24 hours, her daughter recalls with a heavy voice, the doctors said she'd be fine. "She died at 23 and a quarter." It was less than a month after she had gotten sick.

"Everyone was in shock," Raquelita says. "My mother was such a dynamic human being... the type of person you never really think about being without." But after her death, with the family's center suddenly gone, the daughter sprang into action. She helped organize the funeral, which was widely covered by the media and attended by a thousand people. Then, with her father still in shock, she took on the task of combing through her mother's belongings and redesigning the family home for her father and younger brother. She didn't have a chance to grieve until months later and instinctively dialed her mom's cell phone for more than a year.

But the tragedy didn't end there. Her marriage to Frank Herrera, her husband of seven years (they met when he sat next to her in law school at St. Thomas University), was disintegrating. She later learned he was having an affair. "We won't get into the specifics of that," she said in a 2012 deposition, "but let's just say that when my mother was having open-heart surgery, he was skiing in Colorado because he really needed to get away. So I bury my mother, he doesn't make it back in time. That's always telling, right?"

Just a few weeks after his wife's sudden death, Tomás, by then a longtime city commissioner, announced he would run for mayor of Miami. It was what his wife would have wanted, he said, and his daughter would run the campaign. "She didn't say, 'I want to run your campaign,'" Tomás says. "She said, 'I'm going to run your campaign.'"

Raquelita had long been involved with her father's politics -- when he ran his first city commission race, she served as an unpaid chief of staff -- but now she was stepping into the role her mother had always played, as his chief strategist and campaign treasurer.

She quickly proved an astute manager, coordinating a hectic campaign headquarters and helping shore up a large fundraising advantage. In November 2009, Tomás won easily, beating fellow Commissioner Joe Sanchez by more than 40 points. But two years later, both father and daughter were investigated for possible corruption. The campaign's contribution and expense reports showed a $40,000 discrepancy, and the Regalados had turned in at least one filing past deadline. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust launched a joint probe. Eventually, they ruled the errors were attributable to honest mistakes -- two family friends had mostly kept the books, with Raquel and her father signing off. The investigators concluded the difference was borne of disorganization rather than malfeasance. Both Regalados agreed to pay $5,000 fines.

"It did look like sloppiness," Joe Centorino, director of the county ethics commission, told the Miami Herald in 2012. "They were going through some personal issues."

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Trevor Bach