The Return of Darryl Reaves

It was sweet and sour, and above all it was short

It was a brief courtship, a heady honeymoon, and then an ugly trip to Splitsville. For five months former state Rep. Darryl Reaves ran an organization that represents the county's 45,000 public-housing tenants. During that time the future of the Overall Tenant Advisory Council looked bright and ever brighter.

And then Reaves was out.

In September the board of the council, known as OTAC, voted to fire its volunteer executive director. The board changed the lock on the front door of its office at the Robert King High housing project in Little Havana. OTAC board president Yvonne Green issued orders to cut off service to Reaves's cell phone. She and Reaves haven't spoken since.

Reaves: Former state legislator, shill for the Haitian military, lobbyist, and briefly the would-be savior of one very troubled housing organization
Reaves: Former state legislator, shill for the Haitian military, lobbyist, and briefly the would-be savior of one very troubled housing organization

While some speculate that his hasty exit placated some downtown political interests, it divided OTAC. Several board members threatened to quit the organization. A group of council members boycotted recent meetings. Shouting matches now erupt frequently among those who do meet.

That the dapper Reaves would emerge at the helm of this notoriously mismanaged council is, at first glance, rather strange. What would he want with an organization hamstrung by strict financial controls because of past fiscal foolishness? Some say that rescuing OTAC may have been a way for Reaves to rescue his own reputation, tattered when the promise of a brilliant political career went out of control and careened into disaster after disaster.

During his honeymoon days at OTAC, it seemed the former legislator had regained some of his old sparkle. “He was the man at OTAC,” says Sam Mason, a long-time Liberty City activist who has known Reaves for many years. “He ain't no dummy. He's a sharp young man. He went in there and was working with folks. No one at OTAC could put stuff together like Darryl could.”

Reared in a family steeped in public service, Reaves vaulted into politics at an early age. His father, the late Jefferson Reaves, was a revered state representative whose name now graces public edifices in Liberty City and Brownsville. When the senior Reaves declined to run for office in 1990 because of illness, 29-year-old Darryl won his spot in the state House of Representatives.

Bold, brash, and outspoken, young Reaves made waves. He led a fight to force the Democratic leadership to redo its scheme for congressional redistricting. That legacy led to the first African Americans elected to the U.S. Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.

Judging from that first term in office, the freshman lawmaker from Brownsville seemed on a fast track to the annals of Miami-Dade politics. But then Reaves did something inexplicable: He resigned his House seat in 1992 to run against the beloved Carrie Meek for U.S. Congress. Meek trounced Reaves. Since then Reaves's career has spun further and further away from the center of power.

After losing to Meek, he failed to overcome Arthur Teele in a 1993 race for the county commission.He also tasted defeat in another run at the county commission in 1996 and in a bid for the state senate in 1998.

Taking on Miami-Dade's favorite sons and daughters wasn't the only pain Reaves inflicted upon himself. Strange alliances with unsavory characters compounded the damage, as in 1994, when he struck up a very public friendship with the brutal military rulers who ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Back home his flagging reputation wasn't helped by charges that he wrote almost $2914.59 in bad checks from a campaign fund.

More trouble arose in 1995, when Reaves found work as one of Miami's highest-paid slackers. He pulled down an $85,000 salary as director of the Unity Council of Miami. The council was supposed to bring together the city's diverse communities for healing dialogues. Big talk and big plans didn't lead to much action, though, and Reaves found himself out of a job in October of 1996. Following the Unity Council debacle, Reaves popped up in 1998 as a Tallahassee lobbyist. Today he declines to provide information about his livelihood, stressing that he is a private citizen, not a public servant.

By this past summer, though, he was at OTAC, spinning out a blueprint for a golden future, writing multimillion-dollar grant proposals and accompanying OTAC board members to the offices of the well-connected and the powerful. To Miami-Dade's political ruling class, Reaves hawked a vision of a repositioned OTAC, an organization that would play a leading role in helping public-housing residents move from dependence on the dole to financial independence.

The association between Reaves and OTAC began auspiciously a few months earlier. A mutual friend introduced him to the woman who would soon become the OTAC board's new president. Yvonne Green recognized Reaves as just the kind of person the council needed to move from a troubled past to a strong future. Reaves demonstrated that by offhandedly reworking a flyer OTAC had produced. Green was impressed. Reaves's flyer was slick, professional. It had shed its spelling errors and amateurish homemade look, which is exactly what Green knew OTAC needed to do if it was going to win back the respect of public-housing residents and regain the confidence of the county and the Miami-Dade Housing Agency.

OTAC's earlier loss of that trust is an all-too-common Miami story: a heap of missing money. In a period of four years, OTAC frittered away more than $450,000 of agency funding. From the powerful tenants' advocacy group formed in 1979, OTAC had been reduced to an unwanted stepchild. The organization hasn't had a paid director in three years, Green says. There was no budget for operating costs. Expenses were submitted to the housing agency for payment.

When Reaves volunteered to help retool the council -- free of charge -- the newly elected board president thought she had found her answer. A few weeks into his volunteer gig, a duly impressed OTAC board asked Reaves to serve as executive director. The position would be unpaid, but a salaried directorship might be in the future if everything went as expected. Reaves threw himself into the work.

The first results arrived at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency office on August 7. OTAC's “Greenprint 2000” laid out a plan to turn it into a revenue-generating machine. Even though it was billed as Yvonne Green's vision, Greenprint 2000 had Reaves's fingerprints all over it. Its grandiose money-raising schemes and far-ranging plans sounded eerily similar to those of the failed Unity Council of Miami. Instead of relying on the housing agency for handouts, OTAC would raise $245,000 from corporate donors. That seed money would be used to pay salaries and buy equipment.

As the future unfolded, OTAC would become a business incubator for public-housing residents. There would be a security firm, a cleaning company, a maintenance team, a day-care academy, a laundry, and a string of convenience stores. OTAC would operate as the parent company of each business and offer financing for start-up costs. Each business would return a percentage of its income to the organization.

Greenprint 2000 didn't stop with making money. Other plans included a mentor program, online centers at public-housing projects, turkeys at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas, Easter-egg hunts, an annual banquet, even a golf tournament.

To finance the expansive vision, Reaves churned out grant applications: a $21,000 grant for drug elimination funds, a request for $400,000 from the state Department of Health, and a $14.8 million proposal aimed at the county's Office of Community and Economic Development.

But just as Reaves and OTAC began to gather momentum, something abruptly brought the train to a halt. Green convened an OTAC board meeting and startled those in attendance by characterizing Reaves's past as a liability to the organization. The board voted to fire him. After being informed of the decision, Reaves resigned on September 29.

Despite having ousted Reaves, Green and OTAC board member Noemi Ezpeleta nonetheless praise him. “He uplifted me,” Green says with obvious sincerity. Ezpeleta argues that just because someone has made mistakes in the past doesn't mean he shouldn't have another chance.

The contradiction between words and actions feeds speculation that Reaves's political enemies engineered his dismissal, speculation that is further fueled by the sudden eagerness of the housing agency and county officials to provide OTAC with a paid interim director, and Ezpeleta's revelation that several highly placed politicians (whom she refuses to name) spoke to OTAC board members about Reaves.

Some OTAC members believe the housing agency felt threatened by the council's rising star, although housing agency director Rene Rodriguez says his agency had no part in Reaves's departure.

Reaves himself suggests that his latest version of a promising future was cut short by the ghosts of his past. “I'm viewed as a political person,” he says. “Any time I'm involved with stuff, the antennas go up. It's seen as having a political edge.”

For her part Green reports that Greenprint 2000 will proceed, and when OTAC advertises for a paid director, Reaves is welcome to apply. The annual salary will be around $60,000.

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