Yes, people of Hialeah: Former city councilman and current candidate Alex Morales is your neighbor. He moved back into the city last August, traded his half million Miami Lakes house with a yard and a wife for a one-bedroom apartment across from Tinta Latina Tattoo Studio and next to an abandoned foreclosed office building where the homeless sleep at night. He did this intentionally and solely so he could run for city council in this November's election.
You hear the alarm bells, too? That kind of sacrifice (leaving your home and family) usually means he's either too motivated -- as in up to something -- or he's just the kind of guy Hialeah needs. And, for now at least, Ladra is going with the latter. Why? Not just because the man is brilliant beyond his baffled mad scientist looks, has phonebooks of information in his head, some actual ideas of substance and knows everybody and remembers every little detail about every little minutia of anything -- which makes him a stickler for standard operating procedures, sorely needed in the City of Progress. But also because he is willing to talk openly about it all and answer questions, to pick up the phone or answer voice mail messages in a timely manner, to take the time to explain complicated budget issues without any hesitancy on details, provide me and other journalists with his cellphone number and further resources and, generally, make my life and work easier by giving me access and acting like he has nothing to hide, which usually means someone has nothing to hide. Fellow candidate (or ex-candidate, as it were) Daisy Castellanos, who refused to answer simple questions about her possibly late campaign account until she could have me "verified" (whatever that means), could learn a lesson or two from Candidate Professor, who Ladra has so dubbed because he teaches everyone even when he isn't trying to. And before Won't and other critics begin their ridiculous attempts to crimp my street creds by claiming that I am on the payroll for Morales or former Mayor and current mayoral candidate Raul Martinez or someone else because they talk to her, they ought to actually tell their candidates to try that tactic. By the way, just for context, another candidate outside the Martinez slate I am often accused of working for actually did offer me a job at our very first meeting, which I immediately and pointedly refused, explaining why the offer was inappropriate to someone who should not have needed explaining (and, yes, more on that later). Because as the cohorts who do talk to me at their own risk and often do not appeciate my sarcastic nicknames can recite on cue in unison, nothing is off the record and Ladra will hear anyone out. They, and anyone who reads this, can probably also say that if you run and hide, Ladra will chase. From day one, Morales has been readily available and brutally honest -- even if his natural ease makes him more mal hablado than an East Hialeah towtruck driver. Good thing Ladra speaks East Hialeah towtruck.
"I don't want to be a councilman," said been-there, done-that Morales, who served 11 years with both Martinez and former mayor and recently defeated county mayoral candidate Julio Robaina. "We need to fix this mess," Morales added. "These people have destroyed what it took decades to build. They destroyed Hialeah. I want to help bring it back."
"These people" are the current incumbents. Morales is on the Raul Martinez for Mayor slate that hopes to unseat most if not all the current council members in a November clean sweep. Right now, he is positioned to run for Jose "Pepe" Yedra's termed-out seat in Group 1, likely against Fernando Alvarez, one-time assistant to former Councilwoman Cindy Miel. But Ramon Sicre and Tony Vega have also indicated they will run for that council seat. Ladra thinks that's a total waste of political weight and name recognition. He should take out the Only Mighty Isis "Gavelgirl" Garcia-Martinez. As much as Ladra would love to see a Miel/Gavelgirl rematch (which, by the way, las mismas malas lenguas that are usually right say will happen), it is a far more easy win to pit Morales against, well, anyone in any council group. In fact, Morales is the number two dog on his slate, a virtual shoe-in according to numbers reportedly through the roof in the now-infamous and possibly planted Frank Lago "how's the water?" poll that Ladra still wants a copy of and an answer about who paid for it and how much it cost. In fact, Professor Morales as a running mate could be as good for Martinez as he thinks Mr. Mayor will be for him. Morales is Hialeah as much as Martinez is. A decade and a year on the council, the Hialeah-Miami Lakes High grad was also former director of the Hialeah Housing Authority until Robaina fired him in 2009. Morales has two lawsuits pending -- one against Robaina for slander/libel and one against the housing authority for breach of contract. He was one of the main forces against Robaina's county mayoral drive and has loaned himself $25,000 (he's doing quite well in the private sector) for his council bid. All the viejitos in public housing know Morales and that's good for a couple thousand votes. For more than two decades, his parents have owned a bakery on West 12 Avenue -- that may become a council recall central -- where Morales still works every Wednesday, his large hands making the most delicate of the pastries. That's good for another thousand votes, probably.
In 2008, Morales and his wife went shopping for a new house so they could bring Ada Morales' mother to live with them. "We made an offer on one in Hialeah but I didn't get it," he said. They bought a 3,700-square-foot house in Miami Lakes for $470,000, instead. Morales, who owns three other homes in Miami Gardens that he also does not live in (just in case), did not have any plans to return to politics, he said. And Ladra believes him when he says he can make more money in the private sector, writing grants and working as a housing consultant for municipalities like the city of Tampa. But when the caca started to hit the fan in the city of Hialeah, it naturally drew him back into the political wind. "I could not stand by and let them destroy what it took decades to build," Morales said, referring to the financial questions that have led to acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez requesting the approval of a $15-million line of credit puportedly for capital projects but, Ladra suspects, truly so the city can make payroll through the rest of the fiscal year.
"I have dedicated my entire life to this city. Do you really think that just because I've slept in Miami Lakes for a couple of years that I was going to forget the decades I spent here? All my life, I've spent all day in Hialeah. I've been a part of this community, this government for 21 years. And I've never seen this government in this condition, this kind of disaster."
But to run for office and make a difference, he had to move back into the city where the requirement for candidates is to be an elector one year prior to the race. Morales lucked out when one of the tenants in an apartment building owned by his parents unwilling vacated the apartment via the hospital. He moved into the second floor, one-bedroom with a window to the alley in August and immediately registered to vote. That's also when he went to a council meeting to announce that he had moved back into the city and was now a resident. Not because he is crazy (although he is, in that brilliant savant way), but because he wanted it on the record because he knew this would be made an issue. Told ya he was smart. He has been investigated. He has investigated people. He is not about to get tripped up on a stupid residency fraud allegation he made an issue of himself in a past election.
Ladra went by his apartment a few times, unexpectedly always. The first two he wasn't there. But neighbor Maximo Romero said Morales already lived in an apartment upstairs when he moved in six months ago. Rosa Vazquez lives next door and sees Morales walk in daily from her kitchen window next to his door. She said he's been living there about a year and took the unit -- the most concealed one on the second floor. "He's very nice and chats with me," said Vazquez, who voted for Robaina and did not even know Morales was going to run for office. "I told him once, 'Oh, I am so bored.' And he said he was going to find me a boyfriend. I said, to go out with y pasear, not to clean and cook for him," she said, adding that she had seen Morales' wife and son there to visit at times. They still live in Miami Lakes, however.
When I caught up with Morales, 44, at the apartment one afternoon, he was wearing shorts, socks and a Miami Dolphins t-shirt but was in a hurry because he had to change for a meeting. The minimalist Ikea furniture looks pretty new but he brought his desk from the house and it was covered with neat stacks of paper: mail, his latest city/campaign work -- including a long list of current and former council members who collected pensions while they served -- and monthly electric and internet service bills, dating back to last year, which he volunteered to show before Ladra asked. There was lots of clothes and shoes in the closet and his bathroom sink had been used that day. Yeah, I went there. Here, too: His freezer was full of Lean Cuisine and all he had were some canned and bottled beverages in the fridge. That's right: I asked him to open the fridge. I have no boundaries when it comes to establishing or exposing candidate residency. That is Ladra's favorite bone. That's why I spoke to Morales' wife, Ada, who found it funny that she would be interviewed about her husband's strange, politically-motivated living arrangements.
"We've been married 21 years. It's not like we're newlyweds," she said, laughing, "Of course I support him and it's what he wants to do." This was a Wednesday: date night. Some weekends, Alex Morales will sleep at the Miami Lakes house. But on Wednesdays, his wife comes to the wannabe bachelor pad for "date night" and reporters and cohorts -- some of whom have been to the apartment -- know not to call.
"You can drive by the Miami Lakes house and see the condition of the landscaping and you can tell I don't live there," Morales offered as further proof. He rolled off all the addresses and told me how to find them in the public records online. Again, not like some people who withhold information like it would hurt them to let it go -- because it probably will.
This post has been brought to you by Won't, Responder and their multiple personalities from the unrealuntruthsofmiami, anti-Ladra blog (yes, I am flattered), who have tried to make the Morales residency an issue by, again, spreading lies and half-truths taken out of context. These people have no other way to campaign. This context has been brought to you by Ladra, who voters can leave watching for residency requirements compliance so they can focus on real issues like where the money is and why police stations and parks have to be closed. She'll keep popping in on Morales from time to time to make sure he still lives there. Because, after all, he talks and answers questions and will provide me with a lead on another story, if there's not one there. And there's not one here. So, Professor Morales, you owe me one.
And please keep a Diet Coke in the fridge for me. You know I'm gonna look.