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

Instead of accepting the prohibition, Wolland hired an attorney and demanded that the station not only let him advertise, but also give him airtime equal to the time Celestin and his supporters spent campaigning on talk shows. The station's owner flew in from Los Angeles and its corporate lawyer came from Washington, D.C., to meet with the candidates, programmers, and WLQY station managers.

The station agreed to provide to Wolland, free of charge, time segments it normally would have sold. Wolland wound up using his $2000 worth of purchased airtime, plus receiving more than ten additional free hours. (He did not use all ten hours before the runoff, and later applied his remaining time to make public service announcements on behalf of the city.)

Many Celestin partisans were offended not only by Wolland's challenge to the station's policies but by his campaign spots. Close to runoff time, a Wolland supporter recorded two hours of spots with an interpreter, and these ran in fifteen-minute segments throughout the day. The announcements sounded like any other American-style campaign advertisement, extolling the years of service of the candidate, denigrating the qualifications of his opponent. But some of the expressions translated poorly into Creole or, to at least some Haitian listeners, came off as inappropriate personal attacks. Celestin allies were outraged when they heard that their candidate "couldn't fill the shoes" of the mayor, a phrase that in Creole connotes shameful failings much worse than inadequate job qualifications. Celestin was called "a used-car dealer" with an "enormous ego," and was accused of paying his volunteers under the table.

The few Haitians who either spoke against Celestin or simply urged Haitians not to vote on the basis of ethnicity were roundly attacked by callers and even the hosts of the programs on which they appeared. "The fervor and the passion at the possibility of having a Haitian American elected to such a prestigious office seems to have paralyzed everyone to the extent that dissent wasn't an option," recalls Gepsie Metellus, an aide to County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Schuler.

"I said on the radio I'm not going to tell the names of my Haitian supporters," recalls Wolland, "because I don't want retaliation for people who supported me, because it happened."

By the eve of the runoff, Wolland and his inner campaign circle thought they'd completed just about every task necessary to win. Wolland had raised what he thinks may be the most money for any election in North Miami: $66,000. Celestin spent about $16,000. Wolland's workers had already lined up and arranged to pay dozens of people $30 to $50 to stand in selected precincts the next day and hold signs or hand out flyers. He had done late polling in Creole and English, and he saw the high number of undecided Creole-speaking voters as an encouraging sign.

More important, Wolland had been campaigning hard in the affluent neighborhoods east of Biscayne Boulevard. The approximately 4000 eastside voters were Wolland's people: heavily Democratic, professionals, and 70 percent white. They hadn't turned out in the primary election, though, and Wolland wasn't about to let them stay home this time.

Wolland had some questionable help. One eastside resident, Judith Feldman, widow of a former councilman, printed and sent a letter to her neighbors. It was a hysterical call to political arms, warning of a rising "Haitian tide" and predicting that if Celestin became mayor there would be dire consequences, including falling property values and the loss of North Miamians' comfortable lifestyle.

At about the same time ads for Wolland appeared in the Miami Herald. They featured photographs of Wolland and Celestin, noting contrasts in their political experience and qualifications. Nothing strange about that, except the photo of Celestin had been obviously altered to enlarge his nose and lips.

The installation of the new mayor and council members, a week after the runoff, was a cordial affair. While tables of fruit and cheese and slices of chocolate cake waited outside council chambers, outgoing mayor Harold Premer congratulated his successor and the other winners. Celestin was there, ringed as usual by his cohorts. Ossmann Desir gave a short speech in English, Creole, and Spanish. At last Premer called Duke Sorey to the dais to receive a plaque commemorating his previous two years of service to the community. "I'm not finished," a beaming Sorey promised to loud applause. Afterward the winning and losing mayoral candidates smiled and swung their arms into an animated handshake.

Away from city hall, though, pretense was off. Celestin had just filed a civil lawsuit seeking to have Wolland removed as mayor, alleging numerous violations of election laws, including late filing of deceptive financial statements and advertising his party affiliation.

And former councilman Sorey, represented by Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Geller, had filed suit against Desir. Sorey's complaint alleges fraud in Desir's District 4 win, including voting by noncitizens and by people who didn't live in the district. Political consultant George DePontis, who ran Wolland's, Sorey's, and Galvin's campaigns, is helping Sorey document the allegations. "I have investigators out there as we speak," asserts DePontis. "I think 1000 of those people [who voted for Desir] may not be U.S. citizens and got voter-registration cards through the Motor Voter Act. I also believe hundreds of voters don't live in North Miami; they just list an address there."

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