Breakfast came with a side of budget matters Tuesday morning for a new county elected and his predecessor at a Miami Lakes Latin American cafeteria — and Ladra is the luckiest dog in the world to have been put in the right place at the right time (more on that later).
Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban Bovo and veteran commissioner Natacha Seijas Millan, whose seat he snatched in May after she was recalled last March, met for about an hour over cafe con leche and Cuban toast and the mayor’s proposed 2011-2012 budget, which Seijas brought with her in a tote bag, marked with post-its and inked notes in the margins. “You can’t give up a bad habit,” she later told me, referring to the obvious study she had made of the two-inch book which details in list after list after list the $7+ billion operating county budget. Bovo had asked for the meeting, both confirmed, to “pick her brain” — even though it was a budget vote that put her on the recall chopping block and fast-tracked his eventual rise to what is known as the Hialeah commission seat, which was largely seen as his inheritance anyway. “This budget is such a big thing,” Bovo said when I approached their table at the end of their meeting (photographed here, under the TV, very badly with my new 007 phone that I have not yet mastered) He was very surprised to see me. She, maybe not so much. (More on that later).
Apparently, Bovo turned to Seijas because he can’t find anyone to cozy up to at County Hall. The former Hialeah councilman and state representative (R/District 110) seemed a bit lonely when he told the six-year Hialeah Councilwoman and 18-year commissioner — as I listened from a table away — that he did not know who to trust and that the administration, particularly department directors and supervisors, “know more than you do” and don’t always provide the full picture. “We know as much as they tell us. Then you start realizing nobody tells you the truth,” Bovo said, adding that people’s body language changes when he walks into a room. The climate at Government Center is quite different from his days at Hialeah Hall or the State Capitol, he said.
“This is 13 gunslingers, all on their own,” Bovo told Seijas.
Sitting in a short-sleeved PBA t-shirt and a pair of blue shorts with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue logo, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and a face with no make-up, a noticeably slimmer Seijas sat up vindicated like she kept saying “I told you so,” in her head. But, out loud, she simply told him he was right to be careful with his confidence. She gave him the names of a few “straight-talking” administrators in some key departments (Ladra will never tell) and told him about a few to avoid (Ladra will check them out, too). She was exceedingly nice to him, considering that he has kept a distance since he aligned himself with the familia — because these people are like one, big, political mafia — who betrayed her. That includes former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina and the council, especially Council President Isis “Guttergirl” Garcia Martinez, who she felt particularly hurt by. (And, yes, Ladra may change nicknames from time to time if the mood strikes her and the reason is right).
“I told Julio one day during the recall, ‘I feel like I have a knife in my back with your name on it. I don’t know why. But one day I will,'” Seijas said later to Ladra as we sat on a bench outside the eatery on Northwest 154th Street. She told me she later learned that voters who lived in Hialeah housing were told they would lose their homes if they did not recall her (read: absentee ballot fraud). And everybody knows they didn’t do this without Robaina making it happen through Housing Authority Director Julio Ponce, who headed a PAC that supported Robaina, who supported Bovo. The new commissioner also had some of the same consultants working for him as Robaina’s campaign did — including absentee ballot queen Sasha Tirador (paid about $90,000 by the Bovo campaign) and veteran media handler Julio Gonzalez Rebull (who billed $80,000 for “media buys”). Why did Robaina betray his godmother? Maybe because he thought he would be mayor and has become addicted to those “yes”es — therefore needing Bovo for that fix. But Ladra thinks the shared consultants (read: more billing for basically the same work) also played a role as elections become more and more of a cottage industry, especially in the wake of the recalls — and the threat of more recalls. And why would Bovo — who helped her fight the 2006 attempt to recall her but did not even say how he voted in this recall — betray Seijas? Maybe he lost patience and wanted to take his turn now. When asked why she would meet with Bovo after he allegedly threw her under the bus, Seijas downplayed his role — even though he had raised $68,000 for his campaign for her seat by March 7, a week before she was ousted — and said he only capitalized on the recall for votes in the commission race May 24. “I called him and asked him to stop talking about me in the campaign. Just not to mention me at all,” she told Ladra, after breakfast was over and Ladra strolled over to their table to say hi and ask what they were doing. “We’ve been friends for years,” Seijas said.
“Even through her recall, we had conversations,” Bovo later told me in the parking lot as we walked to his car. “While I may not agree with that vote on the budget that got her recalled, she still has 18 years of knowledge. It would be foolish for me as an incoming commissioner not to have some kind of relationship. We disagree on some things, but we’ve always had a dialogue.”
That dialogue Tuesday morning started late. Ladra, who had been so conveniently tipped off to the meeting, got there early and sat at the last table, where she had some angle on every other table. Seijas was on time and walked to the second to last table next to mine, then took a seat facing opposite me, in the same direction. It could not have been more perfect. Here I was with my sunglasses on and yesterday’s paper in my face so I didn’t scare them off and now I think she knew I was there all along. Bovo came about 10 minutes after — and I don’t think he had any idea that they would be watched and eavesdropped on. They chit-chatted about family and Hurricane Irene and, briefly, the efforts of Palm Springs North residents to incorporate into a new city. He mentioned the take-home car debate. “I don’t know if it’s a big deal or not,” Bovo said. “The media sure seized on it.”
Then the powwow started to get good.
Ladra was sitting at the table next door and overheard Bovo mention Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez‘s super-salaried staff in the midst of tough union negotiations that call for big cuts. “He’s had a hard time justifying that,” Bovo told Seijas. “And there’s no justification. The more he tries to explain it, the more he confuses people.”
Bovo said he and the other commissioners were “poring through this budget and trying to use the auditor’s office to weed some of these things out.” He said that services would have to be cut, but he wanted to preserve basic services, like police and fire and solid waste. “These are services that need to be defended. Everything above that has to be at the table.”
Of course, the two veteran Hialeah politicos talked about the upcoming city elections. But later, each told Ladra that they were not supporting any candidate — yet. Seijas said she would likely not support anyone publicly. But, if only because both mayoral candidates Carlos Hernandez, the acting alcaldito, and former State Sen. Rudy Garcia are tied to Robaina, whose betrayal she will avenge, Ladra expects her to help former mayor Raul Martinez. Bovo, who is reportedly leaning to supporting Garcia, said he might come out for one candidate but he wanted to hear the hopefuls talk about the issues instead of each other. “And I haven’t seen that dialogue yet,” he said. “Right now they are just insulting each other. It’s like a family feud.”
A family feud, indeed. A dysfunctional family feud. And Ladra sniffs a maternal rat in the home. Seijas waited for me as I walked with a surprised and somewhat jittery and concerned Bovo to his vehicle. She seemed unfazed by the fact that a political blogger and journalist had overheard her saying quite a few things. “It’s a public place,” she said, and shrugged. He is another story. Bovo very obviously did not know that I had been tipped off to the meeting and that I had gotten there early so I could spy. He seemed genuinely concerned about what he may have said, in confidence. He might find he can’t trust anyone outside of County Hall, either. Seijas, who seems a little smarter or more politically savvy, did not seem surprised and, in fact, seemed downright giddy to see me. We had spoken on the phone a few times but had not properly met (not since I became Ladra). She was sitting on a park bench outside the restaurant and flagged me over when she saw me walking back from Bovo’s car. In other words, she did not act like a veteran politician who would be visibly livid if a journalist eavesdropped on private conversation with her successor and then confronted her about it. She was calm, relaxed and seemed to be in control. We will name her guest director of this episode of As Hialeah Churns. Because I believe she may have always known that someone was watching and listening and might have sat down at that table right next to mine so I could see and hear better.
Some people as persistent and paranoid as Ladra might jump to the conclusion that the “tip off” about the meeting that put me there at the right time and place might have been arranged. It strikes me as unlikely that the tipster would betray the former commissioner’s confidence without her express permission. In other words, I may have been used by Seijas and/or her supporters to burn Bovo back. But if this is what it is like to be used, can I go again, please? Again! Again! Because as Ladra is used by predators to try to exact some kind of revenge or advantage in some kind of political theater, I can also get real, authentic, unfiltered and unrehearsed perspective from the prey (in this case, Bovo). And a chance to show people the man behind the curtain.
So, political operatives take note: Ladra is willing (read: happy and eager) to be used as a minor supporting role in your payback political productions as long as I have the freedom to use the information I gather any which way I please — and lift that curtain even higher.