Total the Recall

On a recent Sunday morning, the two rebels positioned themselves outside the entrance of the Publix on Miami Lakes Drive. There was Patricia Wade, the Redland Community Council's spunky chairwoman, dressed in a linen jumpsuit and floral print sun visor. Next to her was Kendall Community Councilwoman Millie Herrera, sporting jeans, a white tee and Ralph Lauren sunglasses.

Soon their quarry, a wiry, middle-age, white-haired man, strolled out of the supermarket.

"Are you a registered voter?" Wade asked. The man responded affirmatively.

"Would you like to sign the petition to recall county Commissioner Natacha Seijas?" Wade queried patiently.

"Sure!" he responded. "I get her mail all the time and just shit-can it! She's one that we definitely need to get rid of."

Only four feet away, Herrera is having no problem obtaining signatures from a Cuban-American couple who have just finished their weekly shopping. "I'll sign this with pleasure," says the wife.

Wade and Herrera score John Hancocks from another ten people in less than twenty minutes. "We've had success everywhere," Herrera brags. "We've collected more than half of the signatures we need to have a special election. By the end of the week, we'll have more than 2000 signatures."

The pair are members of the Committee to Recall Miami-Dade Commissioners, a political action committee of more than two dozen community activists who have targeted Seijas for termination. The insurgent group promises that the nine-year commissioner is the first of several in its line of fire.

If the activists get their way, it could be historic. No Miami-Dade politician has been recalled since the early Seventies, when attorney Dan Paul mounted a successful campaign to remove then-county Commissioners Hardy Matheson, Alex Gordon, Earl Carroll, and Ben Sheppard, all of whom had refused to build a public hospital they had promised voters.

Seijas is the second county commissioner in the past seven years to face a recall threat. In 1999 an effort to oust county Commissioner Miriam Alonso was called off after she opposed a landfill expansion that she had originally supported. (Alonso was subsequently removed from office after being indicted on public corruption charges in 2002.)

The coalition initiated its campaign against Seijas this past February 2. It costs $510 a day to employ twelve canvassers, who are paid ten dollars an hour to collect signatures in east Hialeah, according to Henry "Hank" Hamilton, a certified public accountant who is the committee's de facto money manager.

So far the committee has raised close to $12,000. Hamilton estimates it is going to cost the committee $20,000 to complete the first part of the recall. He notes the PAC is not going to tally contributions from county vendors, county employees, or anyone currently serving on a county advisory board. "We've already had people tell us they want to contribute but won't out of fear," Hamilton says. (Seijas raised $300,000 for her 2004 re-election campaign.)

A seasoned political vet who has won re-election six times, Seijas is taking the recall effort seriously. A former radio announcer herself, she has recently appeared on Marta Flores's show on Radio Mambí (710 AM) and on Spanish-language television station Telemiami 41 to denounce the coalition.

"I believe if someone is bad, you should go ahead and vote them out of office," Seijas says. "But I have been re-elected six times, so I must be doing something right."

Seijas has rounded up letters of support from long-time allies like Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz. Miami-Dade Police union president John Rivera, one of the commissioner's strongest supporters, has also sent out a press release accusing the recall committee of impersonating county employees working for Seijas. Explains the commissioner: "They have someone going around wearing a shirt that says Miami-Dade and that they are collecting signatures on my behalf."

Then Seijas plays the race card, suggesting the recall committee is motivated by racism because she is a Hispanic female commissioner. "Most of the people who are on this committee are from down south and have non-Hispanic surnames," Seijas adds. "They only have a few Hispanics to make it look like they are diverse."

But the coalition, which formed shortly after the new year, includes not only Herrera but also former state Sen. Roberto Casas and former Hialeah Mayor Julio Martinez. "She's trying to act like we're a bunch of Klansmen trying to lynch Cubans," Miami Lakes Councilman Michael Pizzi notes. "Yet you couldn't find anyone more Cuban than Luis Sanchez."

Sanchez is a 45-year-old Cuban American who 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 actions in the Elián González case. Sanchez, whose wife is a Cuban rafter, is chairman of the recall committee and the Miami Lakes resident who submitted the recall petition to the elections department. "I find her comments ridiculous," remarks Sanchez during a recent telephone interview. "Hearing her say that we are racist makes me a little angry."

Like his committee colleagues, Sanchez says the recall is about Seijas's putrid performance as an elected official. He criticizes the commissioner for failing to protect Miami Lakes homeowners from the rock-mining industry and for kowtowing to developers' demands to extend the urban development boundary. "And her attitude," Sanchez adds, "I didn't know it was that bad until we started this."

Coalition members also accuse the commissioner of fear-mongering and lying. "She's been telling people that our petition is illegal," Herrera accuses. "She's told people to be careful who they open their door to — implying our canvassers are criminals. She's been saying she is going to pay visits to the people who signed the petition."

"She's also said she is going to go over our contributions list to see who's donated to our cause," Wade interjects. "That's another one of her veiled little threats."

(Seijas denies she called the petition illegal or said she was going to peruse the PAC's financial disclosure reports.)

On a recent Saturday afternoon in east Hialeah, few people wanted to sign the petition. Some folks would speak to canvassers only through window screens. Others affirmed their loyalty to Seijas.

One senior couple, Carlos and Pauline Perez-Carrillo, said they would vote Seijas out of office, but they would not put their names on the petition. "I don't really want to discuss that," Carlos responded when asked the reason.

The recall committee will likely submit more than the minimum of 3100 signatures by the April 25 deadline. If the elections office validates the signatures, the county commission will have 45 days to set a referendum in Seijas's district, which stretches from Opa-locka Airport to Interstate 75 and includes 69,797 voters.

"We'll probably need at least another $25,000 for the campaign. We have to start raising money now because it is going to take us a long time to reach our goal," the coalition's Hamilton says.

Seijas, for her part, has a message for the committee: "I have never stuck a knife in someone's back. But they have done it to me. I'm going to leave it there so I never forget."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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