BY ALFONSO CHARDY | Miami Herald
Raul Martinez, the charismatic but controversial former Hialeah mayor, is returning to politics to challenge one of the most powerful Republicans in the Cuban-American community: U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart.
Martinez’s expected announcement Tuesday in front of Hialeah City Hall pits two South Florida political titans—both admired by large numbers of Cuban Americans.
The campaign almost certainly will be deeply acrimonious with charges of corruption, and challenges of who’s tougher on Cuba. Martinez, 58, a Democrat, is the most serious challenger Republican Díaz-Balart, 53, has faced in his 15 years as U.S. congressman.
For Martinez, the campaign will also be a chance to redeem himself—running a race he has groomed himself for since the late 1980s when his hopes of replacing the legendary Claude Pepper were dashed after federal prosecutors opened a corruption investigation of the then-Hialeah mayor’s dealings with developers.
The probe led to a conviction, appeal, reversal by an appellate court and two subsequent mistrials.
Martinez never spent a day in prison and the case was ultimately dropped. He remained mayor until 2005 when he stepped down ostensibly to devote more time to family and business.
The political bug never stopped eating away at him, though.
‘Once you’re in politics there’s always that little `bichito’ [little bug] inside,’’ he told The Miami Herald in a recent interview.
Martinez said he’s a Cuban-American Democrat—a minority in Miami-Dade—because he’s part of the centrist wing of the party. ``I was a Democrat because I believed in housing. ... I believed in helping the disadvantaged. ... Yes, you have to have a strong defense. Yes, you have to have a strong immigration policy, all of that. But you gotta be more humanistic.’‘
Up for grabs in the sprawling district are a growing number of independent-minded voters unaffiliated with either the Republican or Democratic parties.
The 21st congressional district runs from western Miramar and Pembroke Pines in Broward through Miami Lakes and Hialeah south to Kendall in Miami-Dade and is overwhelmingly Hispanic. It has a majority of registered Republicans: 124,744 versus 101,267 Democrats. But those numbers reflect a drop of 4,558 registered Republicans and a slight gain of 111 Democrats since 2006. The number of unaffiliated voters has grown to 71,208.
Jeffrey Garcia, a Democratic Party political consultant said the numbers suggest that Díaz-Balart’s district is becoming less Republican.
Díaz-Balart has told The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald that Martinez’s return is part of a ploy by Fidel Castro sympathizers to lift or weaken the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. Martinez insists he is not interested in changing the four-decades’ old embargo against Cuba, though he wants to ease the restrictions the Bush administration set on family travel to Cuba and on remittances.
‘‘He’s muddying the waters,’’ Martinez said. ``What is he afraid of?’‘