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

"At some very deep, nationalistic level I was pushing for him," says Leonie Hermantin of the Haitian American Foundation. "This is the first time we've had serious contenders in a process where we have really felt disenfranchised. To be Haitian was always an insult. So now we have someone who can speak English, who can bring the governor in to endorse him. He's going to scare these people into listening to us. So what if he's a selfish, egocentric person? This guy is bringing the bread and butter home. I'm sure when history is written, [he'll] be remembered not as an SOB, but as a pioneer and trailblazer."

Frank Wolland, who served on the council eight years before becoming mayor (the city's weak-mayor system allows him no more power than any other council member), insists the North Miami government has not ignored Haitians. He points to after-school programs that benefit Haitian children and numerous (often unpopular) votes he cast while on the council to allow zoning variances for Haitian storefront churches and businesses. Yet at the start of the election, political insiders say, hardly anyone in the North Miami establishment was taking the potential Haitian vote seriously. The two leading white mayoral candidates, Wolland and Anthony Caserta, were essentially running against each other (Ted Ravelo, the fourth candidate, was carefully securing support behind the scenes from politically involved Haitians, but because Ravelo never was considered able to win, the support dissolved).

Wolland had a poll conducted in January that surveyed only English speakers and showed him beating Caserta 2-1. Meanwhile Haitians from all over Miami-Dade and Broward were contacting residents and signing up absentee voters and campaigning for all they were worth. "The Anglo community wholly underestimated what the Haitian community was capable of doing," affirms Scott Galvin, who won his race for a District 1 council seat after years working as an aide for Carrie Meek and then for her son. "For all the years Haitians were moving in, we kept saying one of these days they're going to be a factor, but not yet."

On May 11 Celestin came away with 46 percent of the vote to Wolland's 34 percent. Celestin had needed 50 percent plus one to win outright.

That night there was a big party at Ossmann Desir's office on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 129th Street. Inside the single-room office, people packed together under fluorescent lights, a few carrying their own bottles of rum. A DJ played rara (Haitian street music) and improvised raps about Desir's and Celestin's election triumphs. "Ossmann Desir! Ossmann Desir!" the disc jockey chanted, punching his fist in the hot air. The crowd, waving upstretched arms, joined in. A disco ball began revolving, casting shards of colors through the room. Outside, a front parking lot was filling up with celebrants. Desir arrived to cheers and was rushed inside, where his wife embraced him emotionally.

In addition to esteemed Creole radio personalities, the two Haitian council members from El Portal showed up. So did Phillip Brutus, the Democrat who'd lost his 1998 statehouse race by 51 votes and has already declared his intention to run for the same seat in 2000.

For a brief time last year, the talk of the community was the fistfight between Celestin and Brutus at the Miami Arena, ostensibly over a soccer match. They had to be separated by police, though neither was arrested. But that was behind them. Brutus had only positive words for his fellow politicians and their supporters. "From this day forward," Brutus declared, "the Haitian community will not be taken for granted. We will field a candidate in every race possible."

When Celestin drove up, he was all but pulled from his car, hoisted onto shoulders, and carried up to the front door. Led by the disc jockey, the audience, bathed in sweat and yellow fluorescent light, raised its hands and chanted "Jos-a-phat! Jos-a-phat!" Celestin spoke from a makeshift stage. "The battle is on," he cried, "and we'll win the war on May 18, flag day for Haiti!"

In wars such as this election, use of radio airwaves is vital to a successful campaign. Thus Creole-language radio, the nerve center of the Haitian community, was forced for the first time to open its airwaves to non-Haitians.

Frank Wolland knew he had to reach the great segment of Haitian voters whose only news medium is Creole radio. So early in the campaign he contacted a Haitian programmer about buying advertising time on WLQY. In Creole AM radio, so-called programmers buy blocks of time from the station management. The programmers make their money back by selling segments of "their" time to announcers and advertisers, at a cost of anywhere from $100 to $400 per hour. Celestin had his own weekday program on WLQY and was a regular guest on other talk shows. In this way he'd been informally campaigning for months, apparently without paying for the time (if he had paid, he would have had to report the expenses on his campaign finance forms, which he didn't). None of that bothered WLQY management until Frank Wolland came on the scene.

Wolland says he bought $2000 worth of airtime from a programmer at WLQY more than a month before the primary. He was going to speak with an interpreter for a half-hour on Saturday mornings. The afternoon before his first scheduled appearance, however, Wolland was informed that, following a protest by Celestin, WLQY management had decided Wolland couldn't go on the air. The reasons aren't clear; station managers won't talk about it, though Wolland says they told him he hadn't submitted required written scripts in advance.

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