Small Town, Big Hell

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"They are so dumb," she says of her opponents. "I wasn't going to run again but they kept after me and I can't walk away from the fight."

It is precisely comments like that that incense Diaz.
"She wants respect but she doesn't respect anyone else," he complains.
On a typical day of campaigning, Jose "Pepe" Diaz gets home from work as a mortgage and insurance broker about 5:00 p.m. He says he has been in sales all his life. Diaz spends some time with the youngest of his three daughters, then grabs his voter list, kisses his wife and children, and leaves his modest middle-class home to sell himself to the voters.

Diaz is remarkably light on his feet for a man of considerable bulk. Wearing a nondescript tie only slightly loosened despite the heat, his hair combed back in a minipompadour, he appears to be much more conscious of his personal appearance than his opponents are.

His pitch is well practiced. Sweetwater, he says, is a diamond in the rough and he is the man to polish it. Most of the voters he visits listen briefly and then embark on long recitations of their own problems. He nods and tries to respond with encouraging words. Many seem receptive to the attention.

Despite the flap over "don't call me Pepe," he can be painfully self-deprecating. "I am Pepe Diaz. To make it easier, you may call me El Gordito [little fat man]," he tells one 80-year-old Cuban widow who sits in front of a wall full of collectible plates.

The 38-year-old Diaz has always had to prove himself. As one of the first Cuban kids in Sweetwater, he recalls constantly fighting with the "redneck" children. He yearns to be mayor and officially began campaigning in mid-September. "I want to have my daughters proud of me, that's what it is all about," he says.

For a while it looked as though the race for mayor belonged to Diaz and Bango. (Most pundits agree that another candidate, Jose Correa, has little chance of winning.) But minutes before the 5:00 p.m. March 26 deadline, Evaristo "Ever" Marina entered the fray. That came as a surprise because Marina had registered in March 1997 to run for the seat of State Sen. Robert Casas of Hialeah, who will vacate his position in the year 2000. As if spontaneity were a virtue in a public official, Marina likes to say: "I went to bed thinking about the state senate and woke up thinking about the mayorship." A pledge of support from Miriam Alonso also helped sway his thinking. Of course Alonso can't admit that, he confides.

Marina launched his quest for the state senate seat a scant six months after winning election to the Miami-Dade County Fire Board. Now he wants to be mayor of Sweetwater. The same day he filed his papers, he quit the fire board.

The 68-year-old Marina sits at a table in the Tamiami Trail eatery Wajiros. His blue eyes sparkle while he talks excitedly with a slight lisp. He is the man on the white horse, he insists. "I am not part of the problem," he says. "I am the solution."

His campaign platform is simple: If you vote for Marina, Bango and Diaz and the discord they bring to Sweetwater will disappear. All he has to do is force a run-off election. "Pepe or Gloria, it makes no difference," he says. "Whoever loses will go with me." The enemy of my enemy is my friend. "It has fallen into my hands," he crows.

Marina says his late entry will actually benefit him. He has planned to use all his money to win the election in the final weeks. For example he is sending the small newspaper he publishes, called El Nuevo Universal, to every registered voter in Sweetwater. Ten of his canvassers are knocking on doors, paying special attention to Diaz's neighborhood for the psychological impact, he says. He has a phone bank prepared. He also has plans for radio commercials, and T-shirts and hats.

But if the past is any indicator, Marina's victory might not be as guaranteed as he believes it is. Marina, a former Interior Ministry official in prerevolutionary Cuba before he came to the United States in 1959, has made campaigning a career. In the past 25 years he has reportedly run more than ten times for political office with only one success, the fire board. He has tried and failed to win positions as a school board member, Miami mayor, Sweetwater mayor, Sweetwater council member, and state representative for Little Havana, among other seats. In one case he was disqualified by the courts for failing the six-month residency requirement. As a mayoral candidate for Sweetwater in 1991, election officials disqualified him after discovering he had registered as a resident for a school board election in another part of the county only five months before.

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Jacob Bernstein
Contact: Jacob Bernstein

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