So often do the words politically powerful precede references to Miami's Latin Builders Association that they've become something of a standard prefix in news reports. There are good reasons for this.
The 900-member-plus association of builders, lenders, contractors, and developers is legendary in its ability to funnel money to candidates it likes and to pummel those it doesn't from the bully pulpit of a weekly radio show, Mesa Redonda, featuring LBA president William Delgado. Alums of the LBA include past president Sergio Pino, a Miami businessman once labeled " the greatest political force in the state of Florida" by Jorge Mas Canosa, Jr., son of the late, powerful exile leader; and past president Carlos Herrera, whose claim to infamy was using his LBA connections to help land a sweetheart, no-bid deal to develop nearly 2000 acres of the Homestead Air Force Base.
About a year ago, the LBA decided to plant a flag in Broward. The goal was to establish an autonomous group every bit as influential as the Dade mother ship. "Let's put it this way," says Broward LBA vice chairperson Mariazell Arias. "We are observing and analyzing the success of the LBA in Dade County. They have been tremendously successful; they've been in business for the last 28 years. I am sure we would like to mirror their group and make ours as successful as theirs."
But the Broward LBA is having teething problems. Membership is not high enough to sustain a fully independent organization, and two members of the board of directors recently left. Both of which raise the question of whether this Miami group can expand its political power in Broward.
LBA board members in Miami chose mortgage broker Frank Vargas to lead the charge north. But in September, Vargas stepped down as the chairperson of the board of the Broward LBA. Jose "Pepe" Lopez, executive director of the Broward County Latin Chamber of Commerce and a candidate for Hollywood City Commission, also quit. Lopez doesn't have much to say about his departure. "I don't have the time for it, that's why my involvement is limited. I don't want to say much," he adds. "An article will not change anything."
But Vargas, from the vantage point of his fifth-floor office in the glass-sided Presidential Towers on Hollywood Boulevard, has a lot to say. While he's careful to point out that the LBA is a fine group that does a lot of good things, he also notes that it's not an organization into which he fits well.
The LBA is very political. Vargas isn't. The LBA is old-school Cuban. Vargas (though Cuban himself) has the business mind of an American entrepreneur. The LBA wants its Broward chapter to be just like its Miami-Dade chapter. Vargas doesn't think that will work.
"It is night and day over here," says Vargas. "[In Broward] we start things on time, we speak English, we do the Pledge of Allegiance. Over [in Miami] they do the Cuban national anthem, which is great, but I say we are in America, we have to do things like Americans. They don't like that too much."
Vargas comes across as a straight shooter too busy running his business, Capital Mortgage, to play games. He likes to talk about the common man, the average Joe who gets a lot of lip service from politicians but little else. "You should never forget the working-class person," he says, "they are 95, 99 percent of the people. I believe everything we do, from governmental regulations to health care, we can't forget about them."
Which would be blather coming from many people in his position. But Vargas has the record to back it up. In August when a Hispanic woman tried to buy a Hollywood condo with cash and was told her credit wasn't good enough, Vargas helped her threaten the condo association with a lawsuit. She was admitted the next day.
He also fought on behalf of homeowners against Plantation contractor Pinchas Tofman, who had his license revoked in September after numerous complaints of fraud and shoddy work were filed against him in Broward County. Tofman's license had been suspended earlier in the year, but that didn't stop him from taking on new jobs. Vargas backed homeowners and worked on streamlining the complaint system so that contractors like Tofman will be known entities at both the state and county levels when potential customers check their records. "In the past if you call Broward County and ask about a builder, if his license is revoked in Tallahassee, Broward County would never know," he says.
The fledgling Broward LBA really hasn't flexed its muscles politically, preferring to stick to relatively safe issues (supporting affirmative action, strengthening building codes) instead of backing candidates. But it was a particularly touchy issue -- a prevailing wage ordinance in Hollywood -- that convinced Vargas he wasn't the man to lead in Broward.
Hollywood commissioner John Coleman proposed the ordinance in September, which would require contractors to pay a wage set by the federal government and usually in line with union scale. The measure passed, but contractors and businesspeople weren't happy about it. That didn't surprise Coleman. The reaction he got from the LBA when he spoke to them at a meeting in Hollywood did. "I wanted them to support it," he says, believing the LBA would be behind a measure that could ostensibly help Hispanic day laborers. "I thought they were going to throw their chairs at me."
The LBA wasn't on board, but Vargas was. Paying people a fair wage, or perhaps offering benefits, nets you better employees, he says. "I felt it would bring a new type of worker," he says. "Somebody who will stay around."
Ever careful not to offend, Vargas hints that the LBA was not pleased with his embrace of the ordinance. "There were a couple from construction companies that didn't want it," he says, not naming names.
The official LBA line on prevailing wages, by the way, is that the group hasn't come down on either side. "That is something the LBA will have to take a position on," says president-elect Jerry Brodsky. "At this time it has not been determined."
Originally the plan was to have the Broward LBA be a separate organization complete with its own offices, board of directors, and staff. But establishing that infrastructure in less-ethnic Broward County proved too expensive. "The perception is that because it is the LBA, we have a lot of money," Miami LBA's president Delgado says. "The truth of the matter is that this works with the money that members put into it. It runs like any other association in town, and it was tough in the beginning to carry that independence."
After a year the Broward organization had 68 members, which is good, says Delgado, but not good enough. So the offices were closed and consolidated with Miami's. For now, fundraising events will be held in conjunction with Miami.
Delgado is not getting too worked up about the state of affairs in Broward just yet. "We knew that to start an association in a county that does not have as many Hispanic builders as Dade County would be a tough proposition," he says. "I said from the beginning it will take ten years to get it going."
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Vargas, meanwhile, says he'll be happier in his new position with the Latin Chamber of Commerce, where he's president-elect. "We cannot politically endorse anybody," he says, "which is great."
Especially if you have no taste for politics. "I think I will be a lot better in the background pushing people, telling people, 'You are full of shit, get out of my office,' than being a politico. I would be the worst politician in the world, because I would never have a friend," he says.
Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: