From The Back of the Bus to the Driver's Seat

Miami's black community finally gets an honest shot at the county commission, and the scramble among candidates is on

These are heady political days in the black communities of South Florida. Last week Carrie Meek, granddaughter of sharecroppers, was sworn in as U.S. Congressional representative for the 17th District. Also among the freshmen congressmen and women was former federal judge Alcee Hastings, who fought back from a 1989 impeachment to win the election for 23rd District. They, along with Corrine Brown from Central Florida, are the first blacks the state has sent to Congress since 1873.

In local politics, a federal judge's decision December 23 to accept a thirteen-district election plan for the Metro Commission was hailed as a victory in the black community. It marked the end of a six-year struggle by a group of ten black and Hispanic voters to open up the commission to minorities. The plan creates three districts with a majority black population, seven districts with a majority Hispanic population, two with a majority of whites, and one district with a plurality of whites.

Since the judge's action, a consuming topic of debate in black Miami has concerned who will run for the three black district seats. (The election is scheduled for March 16; qualifying begins January 19.) From the tables at Jumbo's, the popular seafood restaurant in Liberty City, to packed church pews in Overtown, Opa-locka, and Brownsville the gossip is furious. "The last time black people were this excited politically was in November 1960, when Kennedy was elected," observes attorney H.T. Smith, who is considering a run for one of the seats. "A lot of meetings are going on, a lot of discussions. This level of hope, this level of anticipation, this level of participation is unprecedented in my lifetime."

District 1 includes the City of Opa-locka and the neighborhoods of Carol City, Crestview, and Norwood. Betty Ferguson, a speech professor at Miami-Dade Community College and a neighborhood activist, is widely considered a front-runner for the seat. She has twice waged unsuccessful campaigns for the county commission: in 1986 she lost to Barry Schreiber and in 1990 failed against incumbent Commissioner Mary Collins. As of early this week at least two other lesser-known candidates had announced their intentions to vie for the District 1 seat: Samuel Brunt and Rev. Abraham J. Thomas. Brunt is a minority business coordinator for Gerrits/Urban Joint Venture, a construction enterprise. A native of Baltimore, Brunt worked for Metro-Dade for five years as a minority business specialist in the office of minority business development. Thomas, a 21-year resident of District 1, is an assistant director of the Beckham Hall homeless shelter and was formerly a community relations specialist for the Dade County Community Relations Board.

The speculation surrounding District 2 -- which includes El Portal, North Miami Beach, and parts of Liberty City and Little River -- received a jolt when the immensely popular Rev. Victor Curry informally announced his intention to run. New Birth Baptist Church, which he founded less than two years ago, is one of the fastest growing congregations in Dade and has more than 3000 members. The 32-year-old Curry will be running for public office for the first time.

He will face former state Representative James Burke, who lost his bid for a state Senate seat last year to former school board member Bill Turner. Even though he has lived in both Districts 1 and 2, Burke says he decided to run in District 2 because he didn't want to run against Ferguson, whom he calls "a good friend." He favors his chances against Curry because District 2 shares most of the same constituents with the state House district he represented for ten years.

Although widely rumored to be a candidate for District 2, former state Representative Darryl Reaves says he's definitely running in District 3, which is shaping up to be one of the most interesting races in the county. The district includes most of Overtown, Brownsville, the southern part of Liberty City, and a portion of Little River. The boundaries are similar to state House District 106, a seat Reaves resigned in his bid for Congress last year. He was trounced in that election by Carrie Meek.

Reaves was a former law clerk to H.T. Smith, who says he's also weighing the possibilities of a run for the District 3 seat. "Everyone's wondering what H.T. is going to do," says black political consultant Norbert Seals of The Ptolemy Group. "Everybody's wondering what Teele's going to do. They are the 800-pound gorillas, for lack of a better word."

Incumbent county Commissioner Arthur Teele, Jr., who won his commission seat in a bitter contest against Barbara Carey, says he is unquestionably running for District 3. In the 1990 race, Teele, a Republican, won the Anglo and Hispanic votes but lost the black vote. Asks consultant Seals: "The question is this: To what extent has Teele overcome his Republican negatives?" Already other potential candidates are taking aim. "He comes into Darryl Reaves's neighborhood and runs, he's wiped out," Reaves snaps. "That's not hype. I've lived here my whole life. Our old machine is still intact."

"If I make an annoucement that I'm running, it doesn't matter whether Teele's in or out," says Smith, who attended college with Teele, pledged the same fraternity, and went to Vietnam at the same time as the commissioner. "I'm not running in Little Havana. I'm running in Overtown, Liberty City. Teele can't beat me in that district. He can't beat me in 1, 2, or 3."

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