Six months before Hialeah mayor election, there’s already bad blood and big money

·7 min read

The race to replace term-limited Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández is still almost half a year away, but donations are already pouring in for the two front-runners: former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo and former Hialeah Councilwoman Isis Garcia-Martinez.

Both are household names in Hialeah politics. Bovo was a county commissioner from 2011 to 2020 and a state representative for two years before that. Last year, he waged an unsuccessful bid for county mayor, getting 46% of the vote — and 70% in conservative Hialeah — as he embraced President Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

Garcia-Martinez, who is also a registered Republican seeking the nonpartisan mayor’s seat, was a Hialeah councilwoman in the early 1990s and again from 2007 to 2019, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve as City Council president before she was termed out.

In Hialeah, the sixth-largest city in Florida, candidates have until July to make the ballot, meaning more could still enter the fray before voters go to the polls on Nov. 2. Hialeah activist Fernando Godo, who spearheaded a failed 2019 effort to remove Hernández from office, announced his candidacy late last month. Multi-time mayoral candidate Juan Santana is also running.

But corporate and political power players are lining up behind Bovo or Garcia-Martinez — and sometimes both.

The donors

Bovo’s political committee, A Better Hialeah, reported more than $300,000 in donations across March and April, including a nearly $95,000 handoff from A Better Miami-Dade, the political committee that promoted Bovo’s run for county mayor.

A Better Hialeah brought in $25,000 in April from Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of Brightline high-speed rail operator All Aboard Florida. And in March, the committee received its biggest donations so far — a combined $100,000 from two affiliates of Miami Lakes-based real estate company Prestige, which is building a flurry of multifamily developments in Hialeah.

Among the other donations to Bovo’s committee were $5,000 from Capital Rentec Inc., whose president is longtime Miami-Dade developer Armando Codina, and $5,000 from School Development HC Finance LLC, whose manager is Ignacio Zulueta, a co-founder of the for-profit charter school management company Academica.

That’s all on top of nearly $63,000 that Bovo raised into his official mayoral campaign account in March, a substantial haul after he announced his long-rumored candidacy on March 1. Bovo’s official April campaign finance report had not been posted online as of Tuesday morning.

“The response has been even better than I thought it would be,” Bovo said Monday of his door-knocking efforts. “People have been encouraging and supportive, and it has translated in our fundraising.”

Meanwhile, Garcia-Martinez had raised nearly $250,000 by the end of April, reports show, $150,000 of which came from her own pocket to jump-start her campaign last May. The owner of Reagan Educational Academy has also received support from other local day cares and various local businesses, some of which have contributed to Bovo’s campaign, too.

Garcia-Martinez got several donations from entities affiliated with Sedano’s, the supermarket chain that got its start in Hialeah 60 years ago.

And her campaign is getting help from an ECO (a type of political committee that can’t endorse specific candidates but can run attack ads) called Keeping Citizens Informed, which is chaired by Garcia-Martinez’s campaign manager, Sasha Tirador.

Keeping Citizens Informed has reported three recent donations from Hialeah-related entities: $2,000 from La Colonia Medical Center, $3,500 from Magic Towing & Recovery Inc. and $5,000 from La Estrella de Oro Joyeria. All three have also donated to Bovo’s political committee, his campaign or both.

Garcia-Martinez has gone on the attack as she vies for Hialeah’s top administrative post, deriding Bovo’s run for Hialeah mayor as a “backup plan” after his failed county mayor attempt. In an interview Monday, she said Bovo is probably “going through paperwork trying to figure out what has happened in Hialeah the past eight or nine years,” a reference to his lengthy stint in county politics.

Bovo got his political start on the Hialeah City Council in 1998, then won reelection twice and served as council president before he was elected to the state House in 2008.

On Monday, Bovo steered clear of personal attacks in an interview, saying he doesn’t have “anything bad to say” about Garcia-Martinez.

“If we’re gonna start engaging in this stuff in the month of May, we’re gonna be withered away by October,” Bovo said of the campaign rhetoric.

Ex-councilwoman dropped out

Vivian Casáls-Muñoz, another longtime Hialeah council member who was termed out in 2019, withdrew her candidacy for mayor after Bovo entered the race in March.

She and Bovo are longtime allies, dating back to Bovo’s nomination of Casáls-Muñoz for a council seat in 2006.

Bovo said he told Casáls-Muñoz in December or January that he was considering a run for mayor, and that she told him she would “rethink” her candidacy if he later entered the race.

On Monday, Bovo told the Miami Herald he would be “happy to support” Casáls-Muñoz if she runs for another office in the future. Last week, Casáls-Muñoz filed to run as a Republican for the Florida House’s District 111 seat in November 2022, when Rep. Bryan Avila’s term expires.

But Bovo denied that his pledge of future support was contingent on her dropping out of the mayoral race — despite Garcia-Martinez’s claim that Bovo had “made [Casáls-Muñoz] drop out.”

“I can’t and wouldn’t dare try to tell her not to run or anything to that extent,” Bovo said.

Casáls-Muñoz did not respond to a request for comment.

Some mayors endorse, others wait

In Hialeah, the endorsement of current and former mayors can be crucial as voters distinguish between candidates who may share similar pedigrees and conservative politics.

Garcia-Martinez has the support of Julio Martinez, a mayor in the early 1990s who now leads the Hialeah Republican Club and is a staunch fan of Trump.

“Isis is the most qualified person of all the candidates,” Martinez wrote on Facebook in Spanish after Garcia-Martinez thanked him for the endorsement. “To my understanding, she is not doing it for salary or for making herself known.”

Bovo said he has support — though not yet a formal endorsement — from Julio Robaina, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2011. Robaina’s wife, Raiza Villacis-Robaina, donated $1,000 to Bovo’s campaign in March. (The couple were acquitted of tax evasion charges in 2014.)

And Raul Martinez, a Democrat who was Hialeah’s mayor for 24 years starting in 1981, has yet to make his official pick, though he told the Herald he “won’t be supporting Bovo.”

“He has become the most conservative right-winger,” Martinez said, adding that Bovo “accuses every Democrat of being a socialist.”

Martinez, a recently dismissed radio host who won a years-long legal fight in the 1990s against federal corruption charges, noted that he and Garcia-Martinez “did not get along” when she was on the city council. “But I think that she is basically a native Hialean,” he said. “I hope that she’s willing to listen and make the appropriate changes to be able to bring back Hialeah to the glory days.”

Mum so far: the current mayor, Hernández, a Republican who has bucked political expectations in recent years. Last summer, he initially endorsed Alex Penelas, a Democrat, over Bovo in the county mayor’s race — departing from nearly every other politician who represents Hialeah or Miami Lakes — before backing Bovo in the runoff against Daniella Levine Cava.

He has also clashed over the past year with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who indicated in February that he would support Bovo if he ran for Hialeah mayor.

Hernández didn’t respond to an inquiry from the Herald on Monday.

His political committee, Hialeah for Progress, made maximum $1,000 donations to the campaigns of Garcia-Martinez and Casáls-Muñoz in late February, before Bovo had filed to run. On April 22, the committee also gave $1,000 to Bovo’s campaign.

This story has been updated to reflect that Casáls-Muñoz filed to run for state representative.

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