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

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Indeed, they were. In 2009, the year her mom died and she divorced her husband, Raquel officially learned what she had long suspected: Her daughter, Isabela, then 5 years old, was autistic. The diagnosis came in August, just days before Isabela was scheduled to begin kindergarten at Miami Children's Museum Charter School. Raquel says her daughter, now 11, is "mid-spectrum" -- she is highly intelligent and reads at grade level, but doesn't interact on a normal social level and struggles with verbal communication. "She has really taught me about patience and seeing things differently," the school board member says. "I've learned to see things from her perspective."

Raquel also has a son, Sebastian, two years younger than his sister. Regalado is on good terms with Herrera, but raising two children -- one with special needs -- has been extraordinarily difficult, she admits. Hardest of all is trying to prepare her daughter to one day survive without her. "I want her to be successful," Raquel says. "And I want her to have as normal a life as possible."

Just days after Isabela was diagnosed, the charter school told Raquel the facilities weren't properly equipped for a special-needs student like her daughter. They had to rescind her admission. In the coming months, Raquel visited more than 30 schools around the county. She inquired about autism programs, often receiving "weird reactions" from staff, none of whom had any idea that she was the parent of an autistic child. "They were kind of negative about it, like 'You don't have to worry about those kids here,'" she says, "which obviously was insulting."

One day in early 2010, Raquel sat with her dad at Maria's Greek Restaurant on Coral Way. She said she was frustrated in her search for a school. After about 15 minutes, Tomás said that if she really felt so strongly, she should run for school board. A light bulb went off. "I was like, 'You know what? That's a great idea!'" Raquel remembers. "'I think we'll run.'"

Seven months later, in the August election for School Board District 6, which includes Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and Little Havana, Raquel won nearly 60 percent of the vote in a field of five. During the campaign, she never mentioned Isabela's autism. But she raised an astounding $172,000, more than twice as much as Eduardo Zayas-Bazán, a retired language professor and Bay of Pigs veteran who came in second.

She won union support and proved a hugely effective campaigner, talking easily about budget issues and connecting with voters. It was a strategy she says she'll re-employ in an upcoming political bid. "We're going to drill down to what the issues are," she says. "I think people respond to that, and it works for me."

In December 2011, with Isabela's special-needs status still unknown, Raquel received a phone call from Myriam Marquez, then the editorial page editor for the Miami Herald. The newspaper was doing a story about children with disabilities who were being excluded from public schools, but she was having trouble finding parents willing to go on the record. "Hey, Raquel," she remembers Marquez saying, "I know you do a lot of work with children with disabilities... Can you talk to these parents?"

"And I remember thinking, This is the moment," Regalado says. She told Marquez she'd get right back to her and then sat down and quickly wrote a letter. The next day, the Herald published an unusual op-ed. The headline was "Regalado: My Untold Story."

"Sometimes purpose trumps privacy," Regalado wrote. "Today I share with you that I am the mother of an autistic child and that I am an elected official, because after years of trying to change my daughter, she changed me."

From the outset of her tenure on the board, Regalado has been a change-maker. But in her first six months, she says, the brazenness mostly backfired. "They just voted against everything," she says. "Like, I could have come in with an agenda item that said the sky is blue, and they would have been like, no."

"She's challenged... the establishment... She's taken on issues in the community."

Since then, she has committed herself to collaborating and has emerged a remarkably popular, if at times controversial, leader. In addition to her work advocating for autistic students by spearheading magnet programs and securing "sensory rooms" -- special therapeutic spaces for autistic children -- she has also earned praise for high-profile initiatives such as directing the district to adopt the nation's first school district social media policy, which provides guidelines for teacher-student relationships on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In February 2012, after months of appealing to the board, Regalado's initiative to develop such a policy passed by an eight-to-one vote. "When I first brought it, it was very controversial," she says. "No school district had done a social media policy, anywhere... We did it."

Regalado has at times rankled her colleagues. One example is her advocacy for a new, high-performing high school in downtown Miami. "She's challenged... the establishment," says longtime school board lobbyist Jorge Lopez. "Her tougher issues have been outside the school board -- she's taken on issues in the community."

When it was completed in 1928, the 28-story Miami-Dade County Courthouse on Flagler Street was the tallest building in the Southeast. In 1930, Al Capone was famously acquitted for perjury inside the building, and for years its top floors doubled as a jail. In 1989, "Cielito Lindo," as the building became known, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But the city's most iconic downtown public building is in notoriously bad shape. The basement is horribly flooded, the roof leaks, several floors are moldy and cordoned off, and chunks of the building's façade have been known to fall off, posing a risk to pedestrians below. The problems have plagued the county for decades, but it wasn't until late last summer -- a few months before the November election -- that the building ignited a political firestorm.

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Trevor Bach