West Miami-Dade

Sweetwater election campaigns begin with controversy

The Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío could never have imagined he’d be the focus of a controversy in the 21st Century politics of a small city in South Florida.

But nothing is off limits in this year’s elections in Sweetwater, it seems.

In May, the city of Sweetwater will have its first elections since the series of scandals and investigations involving the government and police department were uncovered after the former mayor was arrested for public corruption in 2013.

Voters will have the opportunity to decide who will be in charge and what they want for the future of the troubled city, whose city commission is currently divided in two factions. The political disputes so far have already set the tone for how aggressive the campaigns will be.

For now, two of the three commission seats up for grabs have more than one candidate in the running, and new candidates can still sign up for the election until March 26.

Even so, the city is already overrun with giant elections posters, which have sparked quarrels among candidates since the end of last year.

A few months ago, the owner of a gas station in the city complained that Mayor José M. Díaz was trying to intimidate him through the police force and fines because he had a sign promoting Commissioner Orlando López, who is running for the mayoral seat, in front of his business. Díaz argued that the owner was parking trucks illegally in front of the gas station.

More recently, López said his friends told him they saw somebody knock down one of his posters, which was next to a poster of Díaz, and flee in a car.

“Even if it got knocked down by accident, that person shouldn’t have run away like a coward,” said López, adding that he never claimed that it had been the mayor, who apparently had been spotted at the site.

Díaz said he was picking up his own poster to keep it from getting knocked down by the wind.

“Is someone saw me [knocking down a poster], why didn’t they snap a photo of the act?” the mayor said. “This is just another dirty trick.”

The friction between the candidates has led to some haggling during the commission meetings.

Last week, three commissioners upheld a veto from Mayor Díaz to revoke a resolution originally proposed by López, president of the commission, to name part of a plaza the Rubén Darío Memorial Plaza. On the other side of the plaza, the city is building a memorial for the Brothers to the Rescue, to honor the four pilots whose planes were shot down by the Cuban air force in 1996.

López, who is running against Díaz, said he wanted to honor the Nicaraguan community in Sweetwater. But Díaz, who is seeking reelection, said the proposal was just a political stunt by López to win favor with the city’s Nicaraguan community.

Deborah Centeno, the third candidate for mayor, said her oponents get caught up silly arguments to avoid facing the real problems in the city.

“They create a smokescreen so they don’t have to talk about the things that are really affecting the city,” said Centeno, who has tried running for a city commission seat twice. “And I think it’s disrespectful to stick the memory of Rubén Darío and the Brothers to the Rescue in this. All they’re doing is dividing the community.”

Sweetwater is home to many immigrants, including those from Cuba and Nicaragua. But the a large Nicaraguan community settled in West Miami-Dade after fleeing their homeland in the the 1980s.

Voter turnout isn’t high in the municipality. Only 17 percent of the 8,625 residents that are registered to vote in Sweetwater participated in the last few elections, according to the Miami-Dade Elections Department. Of these, more than 70 percent voted through absentee ballots.

Centeno — who has about $6,000 in campaign funds so far, compared to about $69,000 for Díaz and about $89,000 for López — said she hopes more people participate in the May elections.

“The only way things will change is if people go out to vote. Otherwise, we’ll get more of the same,” she said.

Centeno was referring to the politics in Sweetwater, which some consider it allowed the former mayor, Manuel “Manny” Maroño to govern without much fuss from commissioners, and said allowed the irregularities that came out after his arrest.

Díaz, who held a commission seat for 12 years before becoming mayor, has clearly distanced himself from the Maroño administration, whose mother, Isolina Maroño, holds a seat in the commission.

The mayor has mostly received support from commissioners José Bergouignan, Manuel Duasso and Prisca Barreto. But that could change in May. Duasso and Barreto, both seeking reelection, are challenged by Saúl Díaz and Elsa Thompson for their respective seats. José Guerra, a commissioner with close ties to the Maroño family and who is campaigning along with López, is running unopposed.

López, who has also held a commission seat for more than one term, has avoided speaking publicly about the issues from the previous administration and the pending cases of apparent corruption that are under state and federal investigation.

In a recent interview, López said he’s looking to reform all city departments if he’s elected mayor.

“The mayor, the administration, has to be accessible,” López said. “I think that I am the only candidate who can bring professionalism to the administration.”

Díaz said residents are hoping these elections help the city finally move past all the scandals.

“These elections will determine the future of Sweetwater,” Díaz said. “Right now the city is torn. The ones affected are our residents.”