Reynaldo Flores turned 100 years old last week. On Thursday, the day after his birthday, the longtime Hialeah resident got a party in his driveway courtesy of Esteban “Steve” Bovo’s mayoral campaign — with balloons, a cake, campaign T-shirts and a Spanish-language rendition of “Happy Birthday” led by Bovo himself.
In the race to become Hialeah’s first new mayor in a decade, going the extra mile to win voters like Flores will be crucial. The front-runners, Bovo and Isis Garcia-Martinez, have to distinguish themselves: They’re both conservatives, both of Cuban descent, and both staples on the Hialeah political scene.
“It’s almost akin to a civil war,” Bovo said Thursday from the passenger seat of his campaign manager’s Tesla as they drove from Bovo’s campaign headquarters at West 49th Street and Ludlum Avenue for another day of knocking on likely voters’ doors. “She’s been around,” Bovo said of Garcia-Martinez. “We both have a record.”
The first round between them is Nov. 2, when they will share the mayoral ballot with three other candidates. Julio Martinez, a Hialeah mayor in the early 1990s who leads the Hialeah Republican Club, briefly endorsed Garcia-Martinez before entering the race. Juan Santana is seeking office for a third time after two unsuccessful runs against the incumbent, Carlos Hernández. And Fernando Godo, a right-wing activist, is running for mayor after he spearheaded a failed 2019 effort to remove Hernández from office.
If none of the five candidates gets over 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two finishers on Nov. 16.
Three city council seats are also up for grabs. Carl Zogby is seeking reelection, while Paul Hernandez chose not to run and Katharine Cue-Fuente is term-limited.
In Miami-Dade’s second-largest city, a community of about 230,000 north of U.S. 27, the mayor has unique power. Unlike in most Miami-Dade municipalities, the Hialeah mayor is the city’s top administrator, running day-to-day operations, although he does not have a vote on the city council. Hernández, the current mayor, was paid over $190,000 last year in salary and benefits, according to city data.
And in a city where endorsements from current and former mayors carry substantial weight, Bovo and Garcia-Martinez have emerged as the two leading candidates. Julio Robaina, the mayor from 2005 to 2011, has endorsed Bovo. Raul Martinez, a Democrat who was Hialeah’s mayor for 24 years starting in 1981, has denounced Bovo without formally endorsing Garcia-Martinez.
Hernández, who succeeded Robaina and is departing due to term limits, said he views Bovo and Garcia-Martinez as the only two “serious candidates” to replace him. He said he’ll wait to see debates — starting with one Oct. 9 between Bovo and Garcia-Martinez on Telemundo — before possibly making a pick.
“I want to see what their vision is, how they’re going to spend money,” Hernández said.
Hernández said he wants to hear how the candidates would handle running a city with a proposed $410 million budget — for example, how they would plan to cut taxes while also adding police officers. “We’re not magicians here,” he said.
Two locals square off
Bovo has the flashier résumé of the pair. A Hialeah city councilman in the late 1990s, he ascended to the state House in 2008, then spent nine years on the Miami-Dade county commission. Last year, he reached a runoff for county mayor, coming in first in an August primary, but lost in November to a more liberal county commissioner, Daniella Levine Cava.
“I won an election in August last year and then lost in November,” he said. “I know full well I’ve got to run through the finish line here.”
Garcia-Martinez, a Hialeah councilwoman in the early 1990s and again from 2007 to 2019, is also well-known locally. In 2011, she became the first Hispanic woman to serve as Hialeah council president, a post she held for four years. She lost the presidency after she opposed a real estate project, Villa de las Palmas, that Hernández supported.
Garcia-Martinez owns a daycare in the city, Reagan Educational Academy,and has lived in Hialeah since she was two after leaving Cuba as an infant with her mother.
“She would have loved this campaign,” Garcia-Martinez said of her mother last Friday, sitting inside a Chipotle on West 49th Street and Red Road as she prepared to knock on doors. Her mother, an architect, died five years ago. “I was raised by a single mother. I know how it is. [Hialeah residents] are hard-working, middle class people.”
On Friday, she paid a visit to the one-story home where her mother lived on West 37th Street near Red Road, which Garcia-Martinez now owns and rents out. She caught up with neighbors and walked around an area lined with her campaign signs, knocking on voters’ doors as she handed out door-hangers she had personally signed — “Cariños, Isis” — along with campaign-branded goodie bags filled with hand sanitizer, masks and pill boxes.
“The seniors are always happy to get something,” she said.
Hernández, the outgoing mayor, told the Miami Herald he’s surprised the battle between Bovo and Garcia-Martinez hasn’t been nastier so far, recalling his bitter campaign against Raul Martinez in 2011.
“It’s very quiet in the city,” he said. “I really expected more fireworks.”
Campaigns start getting ‘nasty’
But the intensity is picking up in the city of 112,000 voters, with mail ballots going out on Oct. 5. Both candidates’ campaigns have dropped negative ads about their opponents in the past few weeks. In a recent mailer, Garcia-Martinez’s campaign said Hialeah “deserves better than a career politician like Bovo.” Bovo’s political committee, A Better Hialeah, said in a mailer that voters “can’t trust Isis to run Hialeah’s finances,” pointing to votes she cast during her council tenure that increased taxes and fees.
In an interview, Garcia-Martinez suggested Bovo’s campaign was behind the cancellation of two debates planned by Univision, one on Radio Mambí and another on Channel 23. Bovo scoffed at the claim, saying the stations made the decisions. “I don’t know why there’s this narrative,” he said. “I spent all last year debating.”
Bovo, meanwhile, has raised questions about Garcia-Martinez making a $150,000 loan to jump-start her own campaign, suggesting it’s unclear how she got the money. Garcia-Martinez says it came from her own savings. Her campaign, meanwhile, has pointed to big donations to Bovo’s political committee — including $100,000 from affiliates of Prestige, which is building several multifamily developments in Hialeah — to suggest Bovo can’t be trusted to serve the public.
Nonsense, Bovo says: “There won’t be a person out there who can say that, because they contributed to my campaign, they’ve got me.”
Bovo said Garcia-Martinez’s campaign advisers, led by another Hialeah staple, political strategist Sasha Tirador, “are very aggressive folks.”
“Some would say nasty,” he said.
Tirador said Bovo is “petty.” She has been looking for ways to not only attack Bovo, but also to make Garcia-Martinez stand out. Last week, the campaign released a jingle: “¡Escúchame, Hialeah!”
“Que no te cojan de bobo, escúchame Hialeah, si quieres que ganen todos, vota por Isis Garcia,” goes the jingle, which translates to: “Don’t get fooled; listen, Hialeah, if you want everyone to win, vote for Isis Garcia.” Tirador noted that the word “bobo,” meaning “fool” in Spanish, conveniently sounds a lot like “Bovo.”
“Hialeah is a city that is famous for their jingles during campaign season,” Tirador said. “You have to have a jingle. If not, you’re not really campaigning.”
Divergent takes on DeSantis
On key issues, Bovo and Garcia-Martinez have similar platforms: keep taxes low, promote new development, support small businesses, address high water rates, and work to keep and attract young people to the majority-Cuban, working class city.
“The knock on the city has historically been, for a younger generation, there’s this capital flight. They go spend their money elsewhere,” Bovo said.
Both candidates have mostly steered clear of criticizing Hernández, the brash, big-personality leader who has shaped Hialeah politics for ten years. Bovo has taken the high road since Hernández snubbed him in the primary for county mayor last year and instead endorsed Democrat Alex Penelas, though he later endorsed Bovo in the general election.
Hernández has weathered his share of controversy as mayor, including an ethics commission finding in 2015 that he lied about making high-interest loans to a convicted Ponzi schemer, and questions about his defense of Hialeah police after the department declined to discipline an officer who was accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. The officer was later federally charged.
But there is more daylight between Bovo and Garcia-Martinez on the matter of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bovo has only praise for the governor, saying he agrees with the fight against mask mandates in schools, even as he noted his 11-year-old son wears a mask to school.
“Would I encourage mask-wearing? Obviously,” Bovo said. “I’m not in favor of mandates on anything.”
Garcia-Martinez, on the other hand, is critical of DeSantis’s approach. She stopped short of endorsing a mask mandate, but said the governor should push harder to encourage mask-wearing in the name of public safety.
“I’ve always been a Republican, but I totally disagree with this governor,” she said. “We don’t want to just mandate something, but the reality is, you don’t want to lose families to this virus.”
In taking shots at DeSantis, Garcia-Martinez seemed to be following the lead of Hernández, who has waged several public battles with the governor over his handling of the pandemic — and over his decision to exclude the mayor of Florida’s sixth-largest city from certain COVID-related public appearances.
Bovo is hoping for an endorsement from DeSantis, who encouraged him to run for mayor in February before Bovo had announced his candidacy. Bovo told the Herald a formal endorsement from the governor could be coming soon; a spokeswoman for DeSantis declined to comment.
“Carlos [Hernández] has his style and I have my style. My style won’t be to run to the media and criticize the governor,” said Bovo, adding that he would instead leverage his relationships with state leaders to open a dialogue about conflicts.
Whoever wins will have the power to shape Hialeah’s future. Hernández, after 10 years of wielding that power, said he might take a back seat as Bovo and Garcia-Martinez continue to hit the streets.
“I think my endorsement would mean a lot,” he said. “But I’ve been very clear with both Isis and Steve from the beginning: Their job is to sell themselves to the citizens of Hialeah.”