HIALEAH — In a packed social center in the heart of South Florida's most Republican city, elderly Cuban-American voters warmly greet a congressional candidate.
The city's longtime former mayor, Raul Martinez, is a familiar face. But he's no Republican.
Instead, he is leading a Democratic challenge that hopes to break the Republican stranglehold on Miami's large Cuban-American vote in congressional elections this fall.
Martinez, 59, and two other Democrats — Joe Garcia, 44, former chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, and Annette Taddeo, 40, a Colombian-American businesswoman — are mounting the most formidable effort in years to alter the political face of South Florida. Victories in any of the contests could lead to significant changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, relaxing hard-line restrictions on travel and financial support that have grown increasingly unpopular among Cuban-Americans.
But it won't be easy. The incumbents — U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart — have strong anti-Castro credentials and campaign coffers brimming with cash. Collectively, the Republicans have almost 40 years in Congress and often ran unopposed.
"These districts have changed. The days of unchallenged congressional seats is over," said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.
A burly figure with a popular touch and a Cheshire-cat smile, Martinez won election as Hialeah mayor nine times over a 24-year period, before standing down in 2006.
"We created this place together," he tells the packed audience of more than 230 Cuban pensioners, recalling how he rehabilitated two Hialeah social centers as mayor in the mid 1980s. "To come here is like being home."
Martinez is counting on his municipal legacy to draw voters away from their traditional Republican base. He can count on strong support from the Democratic Party's national leadership. Last week, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Chris Van Hollen, attended a $500-a-plate fundraiser for Martinez. Nancy Pelosi came through South Florida over the weekend.
Martinez and his two fellow Democrats are also banking on low public support for the war in Iraq, the weakening economy and rising voter registration among young Democrats.
In Martinez's 21st district, occupied by Lincoln Diaz-Balart since 1993, Republicans once held a nine-point advantage. That has been cut to only 5 percent in recent months. Similarly, in Garcia's 25th district, held since 2002 by Mario Diaz-Balart, 46, a nearly identical Republican lead has fallen by half.
Both Martinez and Garcia report receiving support from registered Republicans who are upset with the party, largely because of the Iraq war and the weak economy. Just over half of the $616,666 Martinez has raised so far came from Republicans, his campaign says. All three Democrats marginally outraised the incumbents so far this year, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Even so, the Republicans enjoy a financial advantage. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has nearly $1.5-million and Ros-Lehtinen has banked $1.7-million. Garcia squeaked by Mario Diaz-Balart in the first quarter of fundraising ($331,300 to $330,564), but Diaz-Balart has $747,694 on hand.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, 53, won't say if Martinez is the toughest challenge he has faced. "We'll see November 4th," he said. But he mocks Martinez's record as mayor, recalling that he was convicted in 1991 on charges of extortion and racketeering. The conviction was overturned on a technicality, and two subsequent trials ended in hung juries.
"We have to stand on our records, and I am proud that I have lived off my salary," Diaz-Balart said.
Taddeo possibly has the hardest challenge. Ros-Lehtinen, 55, has represented the 18th District, including the Florida Keys and Miami Beach, since 1989, and enjoys a broader base of support. Besides her Cuban base, she is a strong backer of Israel, making her popular with the county's large Jewish community. But Taddeo, a Jewish convert, could pull some of those voters away.
Embargo at issue
The Diaz-Balarts, who operate a joint campaign, accuse Martinez and Garcia of being soft on communism. This is the kind of inflammatory allegation that lends credence to Dario Moreno's prediction the campaign will be nasty, expensive and ultimately successful for the incumbents.
"(Democrats) are being financed by a lot of special interests, many of them from the far left of the political spectrum," said Carlos Curbelo, a spokesman of the Diaz-Balarts. He cited a recent fundraiser in New York sponsored by Charles Rangel, the influential chairman of the House Way and Means Committee. Rangel is one of the strongest voices in Washington against the four-decades-old Cuban embargo.
Martinez and Garcia stress they support the embargo. But they have pledged to undo restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 on travel to the island by Cuban exiles, as well as cash remittances to relatives still living there.
The new sanctions, which were pushed by the three incumbents, may have strained support in the Cuban community for the embargo. A Florida International University poll taken last year found that 64 percent of Cuban-Americans want the 2004 restrictions lifted.
"What's happened here is there's a new dynamic," said Garcia. "The Cold War has ended for America. Family is more important than ideology."
Besides, the hard-line anti-Castro policies have failed to deliver results, Garcia says. "These are one-trick ponies," he said, "and they can't even do the trick."
The Diaz-Balarts reject such characterizations. They say they're active on many non-Cuba issues: Everglades restoration and funding for a new Southern Command military headquarters in Miami.
Martinez says he's comfortable among the elderly exiles, even though Hialeah voted 88 percent Republican in the last election.
Cuban-American voters were not wedded to the Republican party, Martinez said. "They became Republicans because of Reaganism and the whole liberation of Cuba thing," he added, noting that Lincoln Diaz-Balart himself began his career in the 1980s running as a Democrat.
Martinez certainly appeared to have the votes of his lunchtime audience.
"We adore Raul. He's our man," said Josefa Rabre, 73. "We all know him in Hialeah and he did a lot for our city."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.