DADE CITY — What’s going on in Dade City, the boutique town in Pasco’s northeast highlands and still the county seat, is like something out of an implausibly plotted miniseries. It’s about power and paranoia, scheming for advantage and punishing your enemies. It’s about intimidation, fabrication, subterfuge, secrecy and misdirection, wedge issues and payback.
What’s going on in Dade City is “House of Cards” in miniature, perfumed by kumquat and orange blossoms, with Mayor Camille Hernandez approximating the role of Vice President Francis Underwood, puppet master.
Not content to have two other commissioners — Eunice Penix and Jim Shive — on her strings, her honor appears to be angling for a third, and a super-majority, in political novice Angelica “Angie” Herrera. Herrera, 54, a manager for Catholic Charities, is challenging Scott Black, 49, a solid, reliable and forward-thinking veteran, one of two city lawmakers (Bill Dennis is the other) immune to the mayor’s peculiar charms.
And at Monday night’s candidates’ forum hosted by the Dade City Chamber of Commerce, Herrera was center stage when all the weird, scary, astonishing qualities we’ve come to expect from “House of Camille” erupted like a Golden Corral dessert fountain experiencing a power surge.
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It all began benignly enough. Herrera arrived a little before the scheduled 7 p.m. start, attended by a cortege of about two dozen, including the mayor’s husband, physician David Hernandez. Her attendance in itself was a surprise. A week earlier, Herrera had asked to change the format, including having questions presented in writing in advance, and the panel increased to include an academic and someone from the local Hispanic community. Event organizers declined, leading to speculation that Herrera’s failure to officially commit meant she wouldn’t participate.
It turns out they were mostly right.
Herrera, leading off, briefly described her credentials, her many years living in Dade City, her concerns for the people of the town and, after trying to make Black’s seven terms sound like a liability, conceded her inexperience but quickly added she learns fast. Well. Learning on the job was Shive’s excuse for taking a costly policy-setting vote at the tail-end of a workshop in October that subsequently attracted the attention of the Legislature. If for no other reason, Dade Citians should be cautious about voting for another political waif.
But I digress.
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Preliminaries completed, Herrera launched into a diatribe shot through with paranoid delusions and claims of conspiracy, which boiled down to this: Because the chamber would not accept her proposals for amending the format and the panel, and because one of the board members — Penny Morrill, the former head of Sunrise of Pasco, the venerable domestic shelter and counseling service — has contributed to her opponent’s campaign, the entire event was in the Black bag.
Finished, Herrera gathered her papers, scooped up her purse and strutted out, accompanied by about two dozen others, the aforementioned David Hernandez among them.
And for a moment, I had a vague idea how U.S. Rep. Darryl Issa felt when Lois Lerner, the former IRS official who’s up to her nose in the simmering scandal over suppression of the First Amendment rights of conservative organizations, declared before Issa’s committee she’d done nothing wrong, then claimed the Fifth Amendment’s shield against self-incrimination.
Similarly, Herrera claimed she was well-prepared and eager to replace Black, but refused to answer questions in a time-tested format designed to examine her theory of fitness.
Had she stayed, Herrera would have been free to reject the premise of any question (even those submitted by audience members) she thought was unfair, and voters would have been free to form opinions about that.
Instead, having revealed an overdeveloped sense of paranoia, Herrera walked. As April 8’s Election Day approaches, voters will be free to draw conclusions about that, too. They should find her empty chair exquisitely eloquent.