Soaring Aspirations

Joe Celestin might have lost his bid to become mayor of North Miami, but his campaign united South Florida's Haitians like nothing before

Long after the ballots are counted and Celestin loses by just over 400 votes, radio announcers will continue to speak of him as a hero. While Frank Wolland and his jubilant supporters celebrate at an Italian restaurant, about 100 Celestin faithful gather at the Gwen Margolis Community Center for a postelection party, broadcast live on WLQY-AM.

Some important guests attend this party. Standing in the middle of a semicircle of allies, Celestin introduces the chairman of the state Republican Party, Al Cardenas. (Celestin last year switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican, but the North Miami elections are nonpartisan.) Cardenas has just arrived from Tallahassee and will fly back in the morning. With him are state party official Portia Palmer, county Republican Party chairwoman Mary Ellen Miller, party activist George Mendes, Miami City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, and Miami-Dade school board member Manty Sabates-Morse, among others. Not only has the Miami-Dade Republican Party contributed $5000 to Celestin's race, party operatives personally campaigned for him during the final week.

"If anybody here is even thinking that tonight's effort wasn't worth it," Cardenas says to the weary group, "I ask you to think about how far you have come." He concludes his short speech to applause: "I'll say goodbye to you on behalf of Governor Bush and myself, and know we'll always be here for you." (Bush, for his part, had signed a letter mailed to voters the week before, in which the governor praised Celestin's "strong business background and education credentials" and his "commitment to the community of North Miami.")

For the top Republicans in Florida to take such notice of a nonpartisan municipal election, one in which their candidate lost, could only mean the Republican Party is already working to win over Haitian voters for the big elections of 2000. According to reliable estimates, more than 100,000 Haitians live in Miami-Dade County, and though Haitian-American voters traditionally have been Democrats, so far they have shown more loyalty to Haitian candidates than to either political party.

But the significance of this one election goes beyond the demonstration of an immigrant group's growing political experience and how the Republicans used the scenario for broader purposes. Celestin's unsuccessful race not only changed the political dynamics of North Miami, it transformed the way most Haitians in South Florida view themselves and their community. For the first time Haitians aroused fear in high places: fear of losing power. And that means they now command a little respect.

"After the election my experience has changed 200 percent," says Leonie Hermantin, interim executive director of the nonprofit Haitian American Foundation and one community leader who didn't endorse any candidates in the North Miami elections. "Now people respond quicker to me. Now I don't have to be well-known. I just say Haitian American Foundation and they hear Haitian and respond. The difference in treatment is astounding. People are going out of their way to include Haitians on panels."

"It's not about Joe," adds Eddy Delmont, echoing countless other statements by both friends and foes of Celestin. "It's about us. This is about representation for the Haitian people."

For many people, however, it was about Joe. That Celestin emerged as the pioneer and the symbol is ironic, for he simply doesn't fit the role. Even some Celestin loyalists are apt to describe him as an opportunist, a demagogue, or as self-interested. Such impressions stem at least partly from Celestin's lack of forthrightness about his credentials and finances.

He is president of his own company, Joe Celestin Civil Engineer & General Builder, P.A., and he is indeed licensed as a general builder by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. But Celestin is not licensed to work in Florida as a civil engineer. He claims to have studied engineering at the prestigious Faculte des Sciences in Port-au-Prince. To obtain a Florida engineering license, however, one must meet extensive U.S. academic and professional requirements.

Celestin's business address on NW Seventh Avenue in Liberty City is the same as that for Tropical Rent-A-Car, of which he is listed as chairman on state incorporation papers. Tropical holds a county occupational license to sell used cars and operate a charter service, but its state license expired more than a year ago. Celestin says he has resigned from the corporation. But he still owns the business property and currently owes the county more than $2200 in delinquent taxes.

In 1993 First Union National Bank filed suit against Celestin and Tropical, alleging that Celestin defaulted on a $100,000 loan. In 1995 the bank won a judgment against Celestin for more than $137,000. As recently as April of this year the bank was still trying to collect. Celestin contends the matter is closed because the bank's attorneys never answered a motion to dismiss the case. First Union attorneys say the matter is not closed but they can't comment because it remains in litigation.

Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation sued Celestin in 1997, alleging he defaulted on finance agreements. That case is also pending in Broward County District Court.

Over the past fifteen years Celestin has operated several companies, including a clothing manufacturing business, shoe store, furniture store, car lot, and a surgical-supply business, all of which have been dissolved by the Florida Secretary of State's Office. Celestin says the companies closed because contracts to supply various government offices expired.

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