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

Although Celestin says he switched because Democrats were taking Haitians for granted and he wanted to keep from "putting all our eggs in one basket," it was also a way to avoid a certain defeat in the Democratic primary. The state Republican Party donated $10,000 to his campaign, and he polled impressively in heavily Haitian precincts, but Meek, son of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, won decisively. After the election Celestin sued to have Kendrick Meek unseated because of alleged vote fraud; the case is still pending. Carrie Meek, who is revered by many in the Haitian community for her work on immigration causes, became one of the few locally influential black politicians of either party to decline to endorse Celestin for North Miami mayor.

His entrance into North Miami politics just a month after the state senate election was brash but not surprising. "This was all planned from the beginning," claims attorney Ron Cordon, Celestin's campaign manager and a founder of the Haitian American Political Action Committee, one of at least two organizations set up in the past year and a half to back Haitian candidates. "Since January of 1998 a group of Haitian-American business people have been looking at the numbers of registered voters and where we lie demographically," Cordon explains. "We mapped out a strategy as to what seats would be possible and began to execute it."

Celestin irked many North Miamians because he hadn't lived there long. He claims his home since 1998 has been his fiancee's mother's house in North Miami, but his detractors point out that he listed his address only months earlier, during the state senate race, as unincorporated Miami-Dade just north of Miami Shores. Still, Celestin's living quarters didn't bother people as much as the gall he displayed in thinking he could be mayor of a town without having gone the more humble route of first running for council or seeking appointments to city boards.

North Miami is the county's fourth-largest municipality. Of its more than 50,000 residents, according to 1990 census data, approximately 44 percent are white and 32 percent are black; Hispanics of both races comprise about 25 percent of the population. Since Haitians are included among blacks, no one knows exactly how many Haitians live in North Miami.

There is no doubt, though, that over the past fifteen years a significant migration of local Haitians has taken place, from the Little Haiti area northward, especially to North Miami and secondarily to North Miami Beach. Of North Miami's 18,000 registered voters, more than 38 percent are black, almost 39 percent are white, and 18 percent are Hispanic. Celestin claims there are 6000 Haitian voters in the town, although the number cited by many political observers is 3000 or less.

Despite North Miami's high proportion of black and Hispanic voters, its five-member city council includes just one black member and no Hispanics. After this past election, the racial composition didn't change, though the lone black member is now Haitian instead of African-American.

It was by most accounts an election from hell -- a pitched battle between two cultures and two world views, mucked up with racism. Some supporters of Frank Wolland pandered openly to bigoted whites; Celestin's campaign was built partly around sometimes exaggerated portrayals of a racist and self-serving North Miami power structure.

"Celestin came in and divided the city by race," complains Duke Sorey, the African-American councilman who was defeated by Ossmann Desir. "They tried to make it a black-white issue, although it wasn't." With Celestin and Desir receiving endorsements from the black weekly Miami Times, as well as black American politicians such as Art Teele, Barbara Carey-Schuler, Willie Logan, and others, Sorey found himself caught in political limbo. His past efforts to have more black police officers hired and his work on behalf of after-school programs that served mostly Haitian children were deemed insufficient by many blacks. An anonymous, venomous photocopied newsletter called Spectrum that was widely distributed before the election castigated Sorey as "the white man's flunky and puppet."

At an early candidates' forum on the town's west side (lower-income, higher-minority), Celestin set the tone for his campaign when he flatly denounced the shortage of blacks and Haitians in influential positions of any sort in North Miami. He infuriated many whites when he compared the town to Mississippi before the civil rights movement. "The three other candidates were all trying to be nice and positive and throwing bouquets around, then Celestin came in late and he just ripped into them," recalls attorney Joseph Weil, a supporter of Wolland and former city attorney for several Miami-Dade municipalities. "He said they weren't offering anything and didn't care about the west side; they were just over to harvest votes. It was clear he was going to run a gut campaign; he was not going to play nice sweet goody-goody games."

More than anything, though, Celestin ran a campaign targeted at Haitians. Whites indignantly recall the candidate declaring, "North Miami belongs to the Haitians, just as Miami belongs to the Cubans." Celestin swears he never said that, only that Haitians may become a majority in North Miami if population trends continue. Celestin's detractors thought his rhetoric was extremist and demagogic. Yet even Haitians who weren't fond of Celestin responded positively.

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