In Hialeah, where almost two-thirds of the residents were born in Cuba, the country they fled remains a major factor in the municipal elections.
The majority of candidates in next month’s election were born in Cuba or are the children of Cubans who settled in Hialeah after fleeing the Castro regime. Often the issues most important to them have to do with Cuba, from an opponent’s suspected ties to Cuban officials to whether the city should pay Cuban musicians to perform at a festival here.
And although municipal offices are officially nonpartisan, they are filled by the votes of people whose politics are often rooted in Cuba: In a county where the largest group of voters are Democrats, Hialeah’s biggest voter group consists of Republicans, and most of the candidates are too.
Some of the candidates share photos of themselves at President Donald Trump’s rallies or plaster the president’s campaign logo on their own materials. Others put the party’s conservative politics at the forefront of their local campaigns.
Thirteen people are running to fill four seats on the Hialeah City Council. Only one incumbent, Lourdes Lozano, Group 1, is running for reelection. Council members Jose F. Caragol (Group 2), Vivian Casals-Munoz (Group 3), and Isis Garcia-Martinez (Group 4) have all reached the city’s term limit of three consecutive terms and can’t run again.
The election will be on Nov. 5. There will be a runoff Nov. 19 in any race where no one wins more than 50 percent of the votes. Registered voters can pick one person from each group on their ballots.
While the Cuban-born mayor, Carlos Hernández, isn’t on the ballot — he still has two years left, then he’ll be term-limited out — he’s supporting a slate of candidates: Lozano; Luis González, a former city councilor; Jackie García-Roves; and Oscar de la Rosa, the stepson of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Estaban Bovo.
Based on their fundraising reports, the Hernández-backed candidates are out in front. With one exception, they’ve received significantly more contributions (not counting their own money) than the other candidates. Most of their fundraising comes from real estate companies, developers and attorneys, although there are notable donations from former Miami Lakes councilman Cesar Mestre and the Sunny Isles Beach Mayor George “Bud” Scholl.
But the city has repeatedly come under scrutiny because of actions by its controversial leaders — specifically, the last three mayors. Although only one — Raul Martínez — has been convicted of any charges, all three have been investigated. Martínez was found guilty of racketeering and extortion in selling his votes and influence on zoning for about $1 million in cash or property from developers, but the convictions were overturned on appeal and later thrown out. Former mayor Julio Robaina and his wife were acquitted on charges of tax evasion in 2014.
Hernández has been investigated in response to accusations that he and his political operatives were shaking down local businesses, though no charges were brought in the case. He was fined $4,000 by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust for publicly lying about his business dealings with a convicted jeweler. The president of the city’s firefighters’ union, Eric Johnson, filed a lawsuit saying that he faced retaliation for reporting acts of misconduct and malfeasance in the city government and singled out Hernández for conduct he called outrageous and “beyond all possible bounds of decency.” That suit is still pending.
Hialeah is one of Miami-Dade’s biggest cities (population 230,000+) and one of its oldest (incorporated in 1925). More than 96 percent of its residents are Hispanic or Latino. More than 94 percent speak a language other than English at home.
Residents are mostly working class people with a median household income of $31,012, compared to $49,930 for the county as a whole. About 26 percent of the residents live in poverty, compared to 16 percent countywide.
The populace is changing though. Cubans who came to the U.S. around the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 or soon afterward are more likely to support isolationist policies in the U.S. toward Cuba, according to Florida International University’s 2018 Cuba Poll. Though the numbers of these exiles are diminishing, their influence is still strong.
More recent Cuban arrivals are poorer, more racially diverse and more likely to support engagement policies with the island like later Cuban American generations, the study found.
Hialeah is currently in a war with neighboring Miami Lakes over opening Interstate 75 overpasses that would connect the two cities. While the city has mostly recovered from a drop in revenues it suffered during the recession a decade ago, there’s a sense among some residents of an economic divide between the older, eastern side of the city and the newer, more affluent west side. Among the municipal issues most often raised by candidates: improving parks and holding more children’s programs in them, adding more police and firefighters, fixing problems with permitting and slowing down the amount of development that has been approved.
Here’s a rundown of the candidates:
Lourdes Lozano, either 77 according to her voter registration or 75 according to the city website, has been a city councilor since 2011 and is on the mayor’s slate.
On the city website, she said she’s been a real estate agent for more than 17 years, but the Miami Herald found that her license expired in 2003 and has not been renewed. She said in her biography she has been employed by the Department of Children and Families for about 18 years. She did not respond to requests for comment and hung up on a Miami Herald reporter several times.
Asked for the details of her platform, she said only: “I’ve been serving with love and passion to try and do the best for my city.” However, she was absent from five City Council meetings since September, including two where councilors passed the budget, according to meeting minutes; she would not say why. Lozano told Univision that she has had health issues and that she almost died.
She had raised $45,395 as of August. Most of the donations came from attorneys, developers and real estate companies.
Mónica Pérez, 37, is an elementary teacher who said she has no political experience and is running to be an independent voice for residents.
If elected, Perez said she wants to have more police officers patrolling the streets and more firefighters, especially where there is new construction close to I-75. She also wants to create more citywide special needs programs and prevent over-development.
She said she’s spoken to residents who have complained about the water quality, and she wants to fix it. She also wants to create districts so residents can have a representative from their areas.
“It’s not what’s important to me, it’s what’s important to the residents I’ve met,” she said.
She’s raised about $5,405 as of August, most of which comes from owners of retail businesses.
Salvador Blanco, 66, works as an associate news producer at Radio and Televisión Martí, but said he is more commonly known for the Cuban TV show “Para Bailar” from the late 1970s. Blanco said he was in Cuban prison for three years and was released to France. He moved to the U.S. in 1990.
Blanco said he wants to focus on a few things such as having his office be a resource and a mediator for people who need help with talking to their HMO health insurance providers — an issue that is usually outside the purview of city government. He also wants to help end school bullying.
“My promise is to try, not rob,” he said in Spanish.
Blanco had raised only $1,000 for his campaign as of August, all from his own funds.
Fernando Godo, 54, is the editor-in-chief of One Percent World Media, a conservative magazine and YouTube channel. Some of his platform points include eliminating property taxes for homeowners over 65, reviewing the city’s salary and pension system and reducing term limits for mayors and city councilors to two, four-year terms.
He also said he wants to fight socialist indoctrination in schools, which goes beyond the jurisdiction city councilors have.
Godo had raised $1,250 as of August, all from his own funds.
Luis González, 49, served on the council from 2005-2017. After the two-year break, the term limits clock started over and he can run again. He is being supported by the mayor. He did not respond to several requests for comment.
In September, he accused one of his opponents Jesus Tundidor of financing his campaign with money from human trafficking and prostitution. He also accused his other opponent, Angelica Pacheco, of having links with Castroism, political ideas that were championed by Fidel Castro. She denied it.
Gonzalez has raised $79,750 as of August, most of which came from attorneys, developers and real estate.
Angelica Pacheco, 33, is a registered nurse and business owner who was born and raised in Hialeah to a Cuban family. Pacheco owns Florida Life Recovery and Rehabilitation, a substance abuse treatment center, and a Farm Store.
She said that if elected, she wants to hire more police officers, have business owners sponsor free sports for low-income children and push more drug prevention programs. “I feel that the quality of life is declining, and I have excellent ideas,” she said.
Pacheco also received six months probation and had to undergo a 13-week anger management course stemming from several assault charges in 2004. She said she and her mom were both in abusive relationships at the time. Pacheco said she went to go visit her mom, but her mom’s partner wouldn’t let Pacheco see her, so she said she broke down.
“This is an experience that made me grow up a lot in which I learned there was a lot of suffering, a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “I lived in fear of just facing one more day of life because life was so hard.”
Pacheco had raised $51,557 as of August, most of it a $51,000 loan from herself. Most of her other donors are retirees.
Jesus Tundidor, 29, is the former vice chair of the city’s planning and zoning board who was born and raised in Hialeah. He also was an assistant to former state senator René García.
Tundidor said there’s a large senior population in the city and that younger generations are choosing to move out of it. He said he wants to close that gap by creating housing for young professionals close to mass transit so they can live in Hialeah and commute downtown and by creating a youth district. He said he also wants to have more control of the city’s water rates and fix issues with the quality of the city’s private waste services.
“It all boils down to mismanagement. That’s why we need new people with new ideas. We can’t continue to recycle the same politicians,” he said.
Tundidor is the only candidate not on the mayor’s slate who has raised significant campaign funds from other donors. He had raised $51,165 as of August, including two $1,000 donations from two exotic cabaret dance clubs, Tundidor Inc. — which he said is owned by his brother — and Porky’s Cabaret.
“Anyone can donate to my campaign,” Tundidor said. “I wouldn’t work in a place like that or own something like that, but when it comes to a campaign, it’s a numbers game. As long as it’s a legal, functioning business, I don’t see a problem.”
Most of his other contributions come from real estate companies, construction and law firms.
Jaqueline Garcia-Roves, 37, is one of the candidates on the mayor’s slate. She did not respond to several requests for comment. She had raised $42,295 as of August, most of which comes from attorneys, developers and people in real estate.
Milagros “Milly” Herrera, 58, has worked for a scuba dive travel company for almost 21 years. She moved to Hialeah in 1967 when she was 6.
Herrera said she wants to create a tourism development board, lower auto insurance with a plan to improve traffic flow and reduce accidents, create districts for councilors to be elected from and have more police and fire rescue personnel. She also suggested having a citizen watch program to offset police costs.
“I don’t care about party affiliation, I care about people,” she said.
Herrera had raised $2,500 as of August, all from her own funds.
Herrera was arrested last week on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest when she was distributing her fliers in front of a senior apartment complex owned by the city of Hialeah, across from City Hall. Herrera said the city has been unfair and disorganized in dealing with solicitation on its property. Several other candidates told the Herald they’d experienced similar issues.
Eduardo A. Macaya, 69, is a retired real estate agent. He came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1962 and has lived in Hialeah since.
He said he’s running because he’s angry at how the city has been led by the council. He wants to fix infrastructure and drainage in the streets, take better care of parks, have more programs for children and provide more fire and police services to the new construction area by I-75.
“I am a citizen of this town for many, many years,” he said. “I’m concerned, and I can do a better job than those bozos are doing now.”
Macaya has raised $1,800 as of August.
Ricardo Rodriguez Blanco, 51, is an English teacher who has worked at Miami Dade College and other online colleges. He said he moved to the U.S. in 2006 from Cuba.
If elected, he said he wants to cut the mayor’s salary, be more transparent with the public on who is getting city contracts and provide free WiFi for the city.
“I disagree with the leadership and management of the city one million percent,” he said. “Nobody has me in his or her pocket.”
He also said he does not want to use public money to hire musicians who support Cuba’s policies. In July, the city canceled its annual Fourth of July concert featuring Cuban musicians from the island after officials received complaints from people, politicians and exile groups. Some of the musicians had obtained U.S. visas under the “cultural exchange” category.
One of the musicians who was invited was Jacob Forever, whose real name is Yosdani Jacob Carmenates. He sparked controversy in Miami in 2017 when a photograph showed him wearing a black T-shirt with the image of Cuban communist icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Blanco has raised $150, all his own funds.
Oscar De La Rosa, 27, is the stepson of Esteban Bovo, a Miami-Dade County commissioner representing Hialeah, unincorporated Miami-Dade and other municipalities. Bovo also used to be a councilman for the city of Hialeah. De la Rosa said his stepfather has shown him what it’s like to be a public servant. He’s previously interned with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and René Garcia.
De la Rosa said he wants to create more housing for the elderly and the working class, keep parks open on the weekends and work better with the city’s firefighters in negotiation pensions and benefits.
De la Rosa said he is working for Felix Lasarte, a well-known lobbyist who has defended controversial cases of zoning before the Hialeah Council. However, De la Rosa said that he does not interfere in lobbying and is dedicated exclusively to land issues.
Although he’s on Hernández’s slate, he said: “I’m not going to say yes simply because the mayor requests it. I vote by who I’m representing.”
De La Rosa had raised $43,700 as of August, most of which came from attorneys, developers and real estate interests.
Michael Anthony Horgan, 48, has been a teacher for more than 20 years. He said he’s lived his entire life in Hialeah. He said he decided to run for the council when a park in front of his house suddenly closed and when he asked why, was stonewalled on what happened and on getting it reopened. He wants to provide more programs for kids and hire more firefighters and police.
In 2018, Horgan led a neighborhood protest against a plan to change the zoning of the sports park for private developers to build a housing complex. The neighbors went to the School Board to ask their members to stop the initiative of Mayor Carlos Hernández, and expressed their opposition to the sale of the land, located at 65th Street and LeJeune, next to Hialeah Middle School.
“I’m just tired of seeing this city go in the direction that it’s going in,” he said.
He’s raised $826 as of August.
An earlier version of this story did not include the fact that Raul Martínez’s convictions were later overturned.