Santeria priest sets sights on City Hall

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 26, 2003
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/
By Diana Marrero, Miami Bureau

Among the newcomers to Hialeah politics: a schoolteacher, a real estate attorney, a business owner and a Santeria priest.

As founder of a prominent Santeria church in Hialeah, Ernesto Pichardo’s first brush with City Hall came in the 1980s when the city banned animal sacrifices.

Pichardo took his battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 and won. The decision is often cited as a landmark case that protects religious freedom.

Now, the Santeria priest wants to take on the city’s establishment again — this time from the inside.

Pichardo, who is considering a run for a seat on the City Council, says Hialeah has been operating like a dictatorship for much too long.

The city was forced to cancel its 2001 election when Mayor Raul Martinez and four incumbents ran unopposed.

Martinez has been in power since 1981, with only a brief hiatus in the mid-1980s when he was forced to step down amid federal extortion and racketeering charges. The case was dropped after two hung juries. Martinez coasted back into office — then collected $1.2 million in back pay.

“The political culture here is intimidating,” says Pichardo, a business consultant who runs a Web site dedicated to the Afro-Cuban faith. “We’ve gotten to the point where this undermines democracy.”

In a city where car caravans and AM radio rants usually signal the beginning of campaign season, things haven’t been as interesting since the grandson of Cuban singer Beny Moré ran for City Council and wanted to include a reference to the legendary crooner on the 1999 ballot. Roly Moré was defeated.

Already, the political field has become crowded with nine candidates, four of whom are incumbents and fiercely loyal to Martinez.

The city’s election had already drawn attention when three young women with no political experience decided to run for office. The women, all in their 20s, have earned local interest for their idealistic far-flung challenge to well-connected incumbents.

They say they decided to run after the non-election of 2001, the first time in the city’s 75-year history that voters could not go to the polls because no one ran for office.

“Last election, there was not much of a democratic election,” said 28-year-old real estate attorney Vanessa Bravo-Garcia, who is challenging incumbent Willie Zuñiga.

That was also a motivating factor for Pichardo.

“This is not Raul’s farm,” says Pichardo. “Raul is our employee, and I think he forgot that a long time ago.”

But City Council members point to the city’s freshly paved streets and well-run parks as a testament that Hialeah government does right by its residents.

The fact that there is little acrimony on the council should be viewed in a positive light, said Julio Ponce Jr., who has been in office since 1999.

“I really don’t understand why they’re saying we need to fight,” he said. “… All we do is work together.”

Pichardo calls it rubber-stamping. Perhaps because he’s got orishas, or Santeria deities, on his side, Pichardo says he’s not intimidated by Martinez’s well-oiled machine.

“I don’t fear the system,” he says.

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