Posted on Wed, Jan. 23, 2008 Miami Herald
Candidates Martinez, Díaz-Balart start swinging
By ALFONSO CHARDY AND LAURA FIGUEROA
The race for the congressional seat of South Florida Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart quickly turned nasty Tuesday after former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat, formally announced he was challenging the 15-year Republican incumbent.
Díaz-Balart's camp questioned Martinez's ''integrity'' and accused him of being willing to make ``unilateral concessions to the Cuban dictatorship.''
Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer blasted Martinez for ''corruption and indecency'' -- allusions to Martinez's 1991 conviction for alleged extortion, which was reversed on appeal -- and his use of profane language while denouncing Greer for criticizing Hillary Clinton's presence at a fundraiser last year at the ex-mayor's home.
Announcing his candidacy at Hialeah City Hall, Martinez vowed he would not be intimidated by Díaz-Balart.
One of Martinez's advisors, meanwhile, called Greer ''irrelevant'' and branded as false the charge that Martinez would make concessions to Cuba.
The heated tone of the campaign was not surprising. The race pits two powerful and prominent Cuban-American leaders in a district that has seen little or no opposition to Díaz-Balart since he won the congressional seat in 1992.
Among the supporters who surrounded Martinez, 58, at city hall were former Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños and City Council Members Carlos Hernandez, Jose Caragol, and Luis Gonzalez -- all Republicans.
Notably missing was Martinez's protégé and current Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, also a Republican. Martinez said more GOP supporters will come out soon.
When asked about his ability to reach voters outside Hialeah, in a congressional district that includes Miami Lakes, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines and stretches south to Kendall, Martinez said he has reached out to local leaders.
``I've spoken to many of the leaders in Broward County who have said they will support me.''
Martinez also is counting on one of Florida's most popular Democratic leaders: Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and governor.
''Who better to have on your side than Bob Graham?'' Martinez told the enthusiastic crowd in Hialeah.
The Democratic Party, which wrested control of Congress from the GOP in 2006, considers this race crucial to expand its power. The challenge will be whether Martinez, who held public office in Hialeah for almost 30 years, can raise the money needed to run a competitive race beyond the City of Progress.
Martinez already has met key Democratic leaders to strategize.
''Mayor Martinez will bring his experience of getting things done for Floridians to Congress, fighting for children's healthcare, finding solutions to the housing crisis and keeping and creating good jobs in South Florida,'' said Kyra Jennings, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.
Those goals were echoed by one Martinez supporter at his announcement. ''The party doesn't matter, what matters is someone who will bring changes,'' said Ileana Quintana, 60, who identified herself as a Cuban-American Republican.
Shortly after the announcement, Díaz-Balart's supporters came out swinging.
They hammered away at Martinez's record in Miami federal court where he was indicted in 1990 and convicted of extortion and racketeering in 1991. The conviction was overturned on appeal, two subsequent trials ended in hung juries and a federal prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges.
But Díaz-Balart, in his statement, did not let the matter drop. He noted Martinez was never acquitted.
Díaz-Balart also said Martinez ``supports unilateral concessions to the Cuban dictatorship.''
At a recent meeting with reporters and editors of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, Díaz-Balart pointed to a recent issue of the liberal CubaNews bulletin, which quoted Democratic activists as saying that this year's strategy is to dethrone the three Cuban-American members of Congress -- Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen -- because they oppose lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba or easing travel restrictions.
Martinez maintains he would not seek to weaken the embargo but would push to ease the Bush administration's 2004 travel restrictions. The policy limits Cuban exile visits to close relatives on the communist island to once every three years instead of annually as before.
''The government should encourage family reunification, not interfere with it,'' said Jeffrey Garcia, Martinez's advisor. ``Raul Martinez thinks that families should be able to visit their family members or help them financially.''
Garcia accused Díaz-Balart of focusing excessively on Cuba policy.
''You expect Lincoln Díaz-Balart to call anyone who disagrees with him a communist,'' said Garcia.
Díaz-Balart's camp responded by noting that of nine congressional accomplishments listed in his media statement, eight had nothing to do with Cuba.
They included obtaining immigration status for Central Americans, restoration of supplemental security income for legal immigrants who are elderly, blind or disabled and have little or no income, $100 million for a new U.S. Southern Command headquarters, funding for Interstate 75 in southwest Broward County. and for extending Metrorail to the Palmetto Expressway.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre allegations against Martinez was the one mentioned by Carlos Curbelo, Díaz-Balart's spokesman, who recalled a June 30, 1999 episode in which Martinez punched a young butcher who had been blocking traffic on the Palmetto Expressway during a protest.
The fight, caught on video, played all day on local TV news stations. And Curbelo noted the episode may hit YouTube soon.
More than 400 people had gathered on the expressway to protest the Coast Guard's treatment of six Cuban rafters.
The protest turned violent and seven people were arrested. Bolaños, then Hialeah's police chief, was hit in the head with a rock. Martinez went to the scene after Bolaños called him.
Garcia said Martinez acted properly in defense of his police chief.
''If Lincoln Díaz-Balart does not think we should stick up for our police during a riot, he is once again on the wrong side of the issue,'' Garcia said.
Draft Martinez web site: http://raulmartinez.org/en/index.htm
Will Joe Garcia vs. Mario Diaz-Balart be next in the ring?