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His clothing company, Antillean Garment, which was dissolved in 1992, was at the center of a Dade-County bidding controversy in 1989. Celestin won a large uniform-sewing contract with the county, then lost it when a competing bidder accused Antillean of shoddy workmanship and of violating bid procedures. Celestin's lawyer at the time was current Miami City Commissioner Art Teele, a Republican who has continued to be one of Celestin's strongest supporters. The Miami Herald reported in 1996 that Celestin was $1.3 million in debt, a figure he does not dispute today.
A native of Port-au-Prince, Celestin says he moved to Miami in 1978 and got involved in Democratic politics twelve years ago. After working in several campaigns he unsuccessfully challenged James Bush III in 1996 in the Democratic primary for the District 109 statehouse seat.
Carline Paul, a public-school teacher and prominent Haitian-American activist, was one of Celestin's early supporters during the 1996 campaign and regularly invited him to speak on her radio show. She is now one of the few community leaders speaking out against him. "I know too well that until we become elected to office, we will not get our fair share," Paul says. "However, what we often do not do is take the time to evaluate who's coming to us to tell us that they want to represent us. As someone who's been working in the community fourteen years and had the opportunity to work with Joe Celestin in one of his previous campaigns for statehouse, I know the man is just power-hungry. His credibility doesn't go from here to the end of the room."
Paul says she became disillusioned with Celestin toward the end of the 1996 campaign. She asked him for a donation to the annual summer picnic for her nonprofit organization Haitian American Youth of Tomorrow. The politician's $150 check bounced, she recalls, but he apologized and phoned his bank in her presence. He assured her a certain officer at the bank would cash the check at the bank. But when Paul asked for that officer, she was told he was on vacation and that the check had been written on a closed account. "Everybody who knows Joe Celestin has problems with him," Paul says. "He's a slick opportunist. But even the people he's hurt, he's convinced them to put aside their differences because we need a Haitian in office."
Celestin calls Paul's check tale a "flat lie." He asserts he requested his bank not honor the check after an officer called to tell him Paul was cashing the check personally, not in the name of her organization.
Yet Celestin's followers don't judge him by his financial difficulties, which plague many Haitian entrepreneurs. And no one questions his intelligence, drive, and personal magnetism. Prominent in the minds of many Haitians interviewed for this story is the fact that Celestin was willing to put himself on the line. "No one else could have faced all the opposition and racism and gotten people together to work this hard," says Aude Sicard, a Broward activist who has volunteered for Celestin each time he's run for office.
In 1998 Celestin was one of an unprecedented five South Florida Haitian Americans who declared their candidacies for positions in the state legislature and on the Broward County school board. At the time only three Haitians had held elected office anywhere in the United States, all on the town council of tiny El Portal, tucked between the City of Miami and Miami Shores (two are still on the council).
This surge in candidacies was accompanied by other forms of political activism. Miami's Haitian community began a national grassroots lobbying movement that soon found support in Washington, New York, and Boston. The goal was to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would legalize 40,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants and save them from deportation. After a year of lobbying, which began in late 1997, lawmakers from both parties pushed the legislation through Congress in October 1998.
Florida International University sociology professor Alex Stepick thinks the movement on behalf of the congressional legislation was a catalyst for Haitian political participation, leading to the large number of office-seekers in the 1998 elections and the subsequent solidarity behind the two North Miami candidates, Joe Celestin and Ossmann Desir. "A number of people have said it seems reasonable that the Haitians' effort to get legalization really precipitated their involvement, this [North Miami election] being the biggest breakthrough," says Stepick, a specialist in Haitian immigration. "Usually with immigrants there is some precipitating event; Mariel precipitated the Cubans' being involved in politics."
In a panel discussion convened this past November in Washington, D.C., by the National Immigration Forum, a handful of academics discussed "The Immigrant Vote in the 1998 Elections and Beyond." Florida International University professor Dario Moreno opined, "The most interesting aspect of the 1998 election cycle ... is the rise of the Haitian-American vote in South Florida. The Haitian Americans voted as a bloc. So the Haitian-American vote is now up for grabs in South Florida, and the party they align with is going to be the party that best speaks to their issues."
Moreno could have been referring specifically to Celestin, who had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, and only days earlier had lost his second election. This one had been for state senator from District 36; Celestin had gone up against well-funded Democrat Kendrick Meek. "I personally met with Joe Celestin when he was contemplating the senate race," recalls Miami-Dade County Democratic Party chairman Joe Geller. "We consider the Haitian community very important, and I had heard a rumor he might be considering switching [parties]. We had a meeting for several hours, at the conclusion of which he told me he was absolutely not switching, and then he proceeded to do so."