Cabrera was fixture of Hialeah politics

Deisy Cabrera has been a small-time fixture at the murky edges of Hialeah politics for many years, one of many freelance ballot-brokers who collect absentee votes on behalf of candidates for office, usually for a fee.

But the obscure Cabrera found herself suddenly enveloped in unwanted public notoriety this week when anti-corruption Miami-Dade County cops targeted her for alleged ballot fraud, lifting the lid on what many say is a long-tolerated practice among local political operatives.

Stout and in poor health, apparently prone to dizzy spells that prevent her from driving, the 56-year-old Cabrera was nonetheless assiduous in getting around Hialeah to drum up business and collect absentee ballots from voters in apparent violation of county law.

Deisy Penton de Cabrera — she used the Anglicized “Daisy” on the business cards she handed out to voters and potential clients and kept her married name though divorced from Braulio Cabrera for 25 years — is a familiar face to operatives in Hialeah’s cut-throat political scene. The mother of two often worked in campaign offices, sometimes for pay, sometimes as a volunteer, veterans of the scene say.

“People liked her, they knew her,” said Rafael “Ralph” Perez, a onetime candidate for a state legislative seat from Hialeah who employed Cabrera’s daughter, Mercedes, in his 2011 campaign. “Everyone would know who the mayor was, but they would ask her for help for the rest of the ballot. ‘Who should I vote for for judge, or this race? How should I vote on this amendment?’ People trusted her.”

“Deisy was like a lot of people,” he added. “She was known in the neighborhood. She didn’t have a lot of money. When it was election time, she volunteered or canvassed maybe for a little gas money.”

Cabrera also cultivated numerous voters from whom she collected — and whom she sometimes helped fill out — absentee ballots.

Several voters whose ballots Cabrera had in her possession when she was detained say the boletera reliably turned up election after election to make sure they had requested absentee ballots, which she would offer to pick up to take to the post office. Two illiterate voters say Cabrera also suggested whom they should vote for after they told her they were unfamiliar with the candidates.

Some candidates and campaign officials said Cabrera had also recently approached them with an offer to collect ballots on their behalf.

Several voters said Cabrera even buttonholed them at the Sedano’s supermarket on Hialeah’s West 12th Avenue to make sure they had requested absentee ballots for the Aug. 14 primaries from the county elections department.

“She said, ‘I’ll come and get it’,” said Ana M. Perez , who ran into Cabrera at the Sedano’s about a month ago. Perez said the two are acquaintances from the province of Sancti Spiritus in central Cuba, but she didn’t know how Cabrera knew she had requested an absentee ballot.

Perez said ballot brokers frequently work the Sedano’s, asking shoppers if they are U.S. citizens and whether they have received a ballot in the mail. Perez said she gave Cabrera her home address, and about two days later Cabrera came by and picked up the ballot. Perez insisted she filled out the ballot herself.

Cabrera’s election-time routine apparently ran counter to a county ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to possess more than two ballots belonging to other voters — a rule meant to curb such ballot-brokering.

Investigators say Cabrera illegally collected at least 31 absentee ballots for the primary election. When detained by police for questioning last week, Cabrera was being driven by Matilde M. Rendueles, who has not been charged. Police had followed Cabrera and Rendueles as they stopped at half-a-dozen nursing homes to collect ballots.

Cabrera was also charged with a third-degree felony after police say she fraudulently obtained an absentee ballot from a terminally ill woman at one of those nursing homes.

It’s unknown whom Cabrera was working for this election season. She has been photographed at events for Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is running for re-election. But Gimenez insists she was not hired by his campaign, and a dozen key campaign aides have signed affidavits to that effect.

Cabrera’s lawyer, Eric Castillo, said she declined to comment.

Cabrera may have become a scapegoat in Hialeah’s ever-shifting Republican political rivalries. Investigators began following her after receiving a tip from a private investigator who has refused to say who he was working for.

Veteran Hialeah political figures who usually found themselves on opposite sides from Cabrera say she consistently worked for a set of allied Hialeah GOP politicians that include city council member Vivian Casals-Muñoz, former state Sen. Rudy Garcia, state Sen. Rene Garcia and state Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, and whatever slate of candidates, including judicial candidates, they were supporting in a particular election.

“She’s been working for years,” said Sasha Tirador, a veteran political operative. “We always end up on different sides. We often have phone banks and sometimes we call a voter who says, ‘Oh, no, Daisy Cabrera is coming by.’ We write off that voter.”

Tirador and others, including former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat, say they believe Cabrera may have been again working on behalf of her usual slate — which is supporting Gimenez — this time around.

Gonzalez, however, denied ever hiring Cabrera, whom he described as an acquaintance.

Rene Garcia, who was photographed with Cabrera and Gimenez at a recent Gimenez political event, said the alleged boletera only worked for him in 2006 and 2008 races on sending out mailers and making phone calls to voters — not collecting absentee ballots.

“I’ve never had an absentee ballot operation like other folks have had,” Garcia said. “There is a cottage industry of people trying to chase absentee ballots, and it’s wrong.”

Casals-Muñoz and Rudy Garcia did not return phone calls from Herald reporters.

A check of public spending records for state-level campaigns suggest Cabrera was not raking in vast sums, though some insiders say ballot-brokers are often paid in cash by campaign consultants and their names may not show up on such reports. The records check also did not include local campaigns.

Rene Garcia paid her a total of $600 in 2006 for “campaign work,” records show. Rudy Garcia paid Cabrera $100 for “campaign office help” during his unsuccessful run for Hialeah mayor in 2011.

Cabrera also did paid work for two sitting Miami-Dade circuit court judges — Migna Sanchez-Llorens, a criminal-division judge, and Marcia Caballero, a civil-division judge.

According to state records, Sanchez-Llorens paid Cabrera $600 for work classified as “gotv” — short for “get out the vote” — in her successful 2008 campaign. Caballero paid Cabrera $800 for work classified as “grassroots event.”

Sanchez-Llorens was on vacation and out of the office, her bailiff said.

Caballero declined an interview request through courts spokeswoman Eunice Sigler. In an email, Sigler said the judicial ethics canon prevents her and the judge from commenting “because Ms. Cabrera is the subject of a pending criminal case.”

In most ways, Tirador said, Cabrera’s career as a Hialeah boletera was typical — “small-time” and “fairly cheap.”

“But she’s the one who got caught,’’ she said.

Miami Herald staff writers Scott Hiaasen, Patricia Mazzei and Christina Veiga contributed to this report.