The annual election of a leader for the Hispanic festival disintegrated into chaos last night when two of the losers announced they would pool their votes and share the top job.
But the organizer of the election said the surprise proposal was not allowed, and that the legal winner was Jose Sueiro, a Hispanic newspaper owner in Adams-Morgan, who got 202 votes in the bitter election marked by personal insults and accusations.
Although the election focuses on the festival, the symbolic leadership of this area's diverse community of Hispanic residents, which is said to number about 250,000, is also at stake. The festival is held each September in Adams-Morgan.
Arturo Griffiths, a Panamanian-born building contractor, received 168 votes and Israel Lopez, a Puerto Rican-born radio station owner from Laurel, received 76 votes. After the results were tabulated about 10 p.m., they announced they would join forces and create a joint committee to "unite the community." They also vowed to fight any effort to turn the festival over to the District government, an idea that some Hispanic leaders had endorsed.
Shortly before the start of the election at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams-Morgan and after pressure from some Hispanic leaders, the four candidates reversed an earlier decision to allow only Latin Americans who speak Spanish to vote.
Also at the last minute, one candidate, virtually unknown in the Hispanic community, added his name to the race, while another switched tickets and decided to run with another candidate. The late entry, Marco Hechavarria, a Cuban-born building contractor living in Vienna, received four votes.
Because most of the 600 who turned out in the nippy weather last night are not U.S. citizens, the election offered them a rare opportunity to cast a vote for someone to represent them. Virgilio Tamayo Brinones, who was born in Cuba, has lived in the District for eight years and did vote. He said he did so because "my hope is that this festival will be better and more harmonious."
The president of the festival, who is elected for two years, selects a board to help organize the event and carries out the fund raising and publicity. As a result, the president maintains a high profile in the Hispanic community.
While the annual elections in the past have been marked by personal animosities, tensions seemed particularly high this year, and focused on Lopez's use of his radio station, Hispanic leaders said.
Sueiro accused Lopez, owner of WILC-AM 90 or Radio Borinquen, of using his radio station as a campaign tool.
"This is a sham and a bloody mess and it's as ugly as any election anyone can remember," said Sueiro.
Sueiro, 36, who was born in New York of Spanish parents, said Lopez called him a "blue-eyed European" on the air and called another candidate a "communist." Lopez did not return a Post reporter's call yesterday.
The shrill rhetoric occurred despite an organized effort by a group of former presidents to create a permanent nonprofit organization to oversee fund raising for the festival. This arrangement would leave the president and his board free to concentrate on organizing the event that in the past few years has attracted as many as 250,000 people.