But the permanent exit -- Lago took a leave of absence earlier this year to run for Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban Bovo's vacated state house seat (R/District 110) -- could also signal a split in the longtime alliance between Maroño, who backs former State Sen. Rudy Garcia in the mayoral race, and Candidate Lago, who is likely to go with former Mayor Raul Martinez.
Did everybody hear that collective gasp from card-carrying Republicans? Yes, Lago is still a conservative GOP loyalist who campaigned for Gov. Rick Scott and tried, really tried, to be a good little elephant and stay true to the party (read: he still has Tallahassee on his mind). But acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez and Council President Isis "GutterMouth Girl" Garcia Martinez are backing Paul Hernandez for that seat. And he might have been talking to both Martinez and Garcia in the past couple of weeks, but now that David Custin -- who worked on State Rep. Jose Oliva's campaign while his "former partner" Sasha Tirador worked for Lago (more on that later) -- is on Garcia's team, Lago -- spotted talking with former councilman and candidate Alex Morales last month at Maruch, may not want to play there, either. He also strikes Ladra as a pretty sharp guy who is really eager to be an elected already. He sees this Hialeah council contest as a golden opportunity to get in the door and may be Martinez-minded for more marketable motives: The Dark Prince -- longtime friend of Lago's wife, Hialeah Planning and Zoning Board member Liz Iglesias, and her family -- leads all the credible polls (more on that later). Both he and Garcia had reported raising a little more than $100,000 so far (next reports are not due until Sept. 26), but the former Senator may be going through his checkbook faster with his name-embroidered Cubavera shirts in every color, the pricey postal pieces to come courtesy of his newest consultant, David Custin, who got Oliva elected against all odds, and the nicest candidate headquarters this watchdog has ever seen -- the Taj Majal of campaign offices (more on that later). It's even nicer than U.S. Congressman David Rivera's 2010, er, I mean the "Republican Party Victory Office" that opened in West Dade, in the same shopping plaza as David's district office, last summer. Martinez is being frugal, pulling out computers from his 2008 Congressional bid against Lincoln Diaz-Balart (more on that later) and clipping plastic tablecloths to his folding tables. He may end up with more money to spend in what has been widely reported as a tapped-out funding base, made broke by the Julio Robaina bust. And since campaign funding is what ultimately brought Lago -- who originally said he may run independently in his seat -- to Martinez's camp. He told Ladra that he figured he would need between $100,000 and $150,000 to win the seat against an incumbent running on a slate. He plans on raising about $50,000 -- because he knows the money ain't flowing like it was in March. It's about pooling resources and getting the most bang for your buck.
"My community is facing a difficult period and it is time for a new voice at City Hall," he wrote in his resignation letter to Maroño. He is officially an ex city employee on qualifying day in Hialeah, Sept. 9, but is already gone, using what is left of his vacation time. "Having filed to run for the Hialeah council, I will not be able to dedicate the necessary time to continue advancing the interests of the citizens of Sweetwater."
Neither Lago nor Martinez -- who may not trust Lago because he had supported Robaina in the county mayoral race while Martinez campaigned for Carlos Gimenez -- would say they were together. But they spoke on Thursday and are going to meet again next Friday after the qualifying deadline (read: when the reporters are all there), which is when Lago first told Ladra he would announce what side he was on. But Ladra smells it already. Garcia told me again today that he had not talked to Lago since shortly after the FIU grad did an independent poll (he said he paid for it himself to gauge his viability) weeks ago. But people close to his campaign and people who support Martinez all say Lago is with the Back to the Future slate.
So, as one might imagine, it may be difficult to work for Mayor Maroño and support and run on the slate with his pick's party pooper. Nay, impossible. But Lago says that is not what motivated him to resign from his $70,000 a year job. "It's just time to move in a different direction," Lago said. "I was waiting to finish the annexation here, because annexation was my big thing, and now I want to do something else."
Maroño told Ladra Thursday night the same thing -- but his words were more, um, shall we say curt and indicative of a riff in the relationship? "It was time to move on. It doesn't work to be working for a city as councilman and be the chief of staff of another city," Maroño said. Does that mean he gives Lago the victory so far out in the game? "It's a toss-up. Anyone can win." Will he support his protege, who has backed him up for six years? "I'm not going to support Frank in this race. I don't know why he's doing it. I don't know who he's listening to. I haven't been his advisor. I'm going to stay out of it. I am not going to support him," said Maroño, who added that he will not back any of the council candidates and is only getting involved in the mayoral race. "I'm supporting Rudy Garcia because he has been a personal friend of mine for years and we've gone through many hurricanes together. I went to Rudy about a year ago and told him I would support him. Fortunately for Hialeah, they are all good candidates. I think Rudy has fresh ideas and when I give my word, I stick to it."
He said Lago "was a friend, is a friend, and was a good chief of staff. I can almost attribute the annexation to his efforts." But he admitted after Ladra asked that he thought Lago was siding with Martinez, and he was obviously not happy about it. "I don't know who he is talking to, but I think it's a mistake," Maroño said. "He's taking a risk, but he knows what he's doing."
Lago admits it is a risk to leave a $70,000 job for a $40,000 job that isn't even yours for sure and won't be for two months. He used up all his vacation time during the state house campaign. But he said it was his time. He got the annexation done and wanted to get out of government to get into politics, his real love.
"This is my best chance. I just ran for state representative," Lago said. "I've tried to run before and someone always talks you out of it and tells you it's not your time. Well, this is my time and if I lose, I'll just get a job doing something else."
Ladra will remind him to watch for job openings in Hialeah City Hall and its housing authority.