A New Political Complexion

Come next week, the City of North Miami will be a very different place

It's largely because of this show of support by an impressive collection of prominent political and civic figures that Desulme is expected to win in District 3. (It didn't help Pierre-Louis that one of his former driving-school customers loudly demanded his money back during a public forum attended by all the North Miami candidates.) Hill, despite being a polished, knowledgeable candidate, will probably not be able to overcome the mere fact he's not Haitian.

Thus in this election the real race factor in North Miami isn't color. There are still the white North Miamians who consider African Americans and Haitians an identical dark force, but the two groups themselves live a more complex political reality. Many Haitian Americans say they have become disenchanted with Joe Celestin but are no more inclined to vote for Duke Sorey. This despite the fact that Sorey, a Democrat, shares political views compatible with those of the majority of Haitian Americans, who overwhelmingly are registered as Democrats. Celestin, a Republican, supports Gov. Jeb Bush's controversial plan to eliminate affirmative action and counts on the enthusiastic backing of the state Republican Party. A general contractor, Celestin still fields questions about his business indebtedness. During the past fourteen years, according to court records, judgments have been entered against Celestin for debts totaling nearly $200,000. He maintains he is paying off his obligations and that there's nothing wrong with taking risks and losing.

"I can't support Joe, because I don't want Republican principles to make inroads on the council," asserts a Haitian-American man who lives in North Miami and is involved in local politics. "But I still wrote my [contribution] check for $150. Why? We're Haitian. We stick together. I can't tell my people to vote for an African American, because they'd never do that for us."

Democratic activist Jacques Despinosse is one of an unprecedented three Haitian candidates for the North Miami City Council
Steve Satterwhite
Democratic activist Jacques Despinosse is one of an unprecedented three Haitian candidates for the North Miami City Council
They're as different as night and day: Either Joe Celestin (below) or Duke Sorey will be the next mayor of North Miami
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
They're as different as night and day: Either Joe Celestin (below) or Duke Sorey will be the next mayor of North Miami

Adds Carline Paul, a schoolteacher and community activist who has been an outspoken critic of Celestin and in fact worked for his opponent in 1999: "I'm sitting this one out. I'm not with Joe, but I'll never vote for Duke. I can't support him after how his people treated us in the last election."

Paul and other Haitians say the 1999 contest between Sorey and challenger Ossmann Desir exacerbated divisions between Haitians and African Americans. "All during that election day," recalls Aude Sicard, a Celestin campaign volunteer then and now, "there were altercations and name-callings between Haitians and African Americans."

Most non-Haitians involved in this election say they haven't noticed any lingering hard feelings, and by all accounts the 2001 campaign has been surprisingly free of the hostility and race-baiting so prevalent in 1999. But on Haitian radio it's a different story. Whereas mayoral candidate Sorey has been literally walking the length and breadth of North Miami, networking and attending forums and lunches, Celestin has conducted his campaign almost exclusively on the radio. Kreyol-language radio is the only means of mass communication within the Haitian community, and Celestin and his supporters repeat a simple message: Haitians need representation and must vote for Haitians. A Haitian who votes for a non-Haitian abandons his people.

Sorey has bought airtime on the 24-hour Kreyol station WLQY-AM (1320), as much as his cash-poor campaign can afford. Celestin, on the other hand, doesn't really need to spend money on radio advertising, since he and his supporters frequently call in to talk shows to discuss the need for Haitian political participation and for a Haitian-American mayor of North Miami. Paid advertising slots that are the bread and butter of radio-airtime brokers often conclude with the pitchman plugging Celestin for mayor. Clearly, during election season, Kreyol speakers and English speakers inhabit two parallel but vastly different universes. "If Joe wins," muses Councilman Scott Galvin, "to me it will demonstrate we really almost have two separate North Miamis: the Haitian North Miami and everyone else's."

On April 16, the day a Haitian man was arrested for causing a disturbance at a North Miami bank, Celestin appeared as a guest on Herntz Phanord's program on WLQY to decry the "victimization" of Haitians by the North Miami police. "Sometimes they beat us for nothing," Celestin asserted. "They beat us, they mistreat us, and there is nothing that can be done." There's no evidence the arrested man (who at the time was facing armed-robbery charges) was beaten or hit by the police, though police reports indicate he was pepper-sprayed to allow officers to handcuff him. Nevertheless the incident provoked numerous phone calls to both the radio station and police headquarters. In many ways it's reminiscent of campaigning on Cuban-exile AM stations, where some politicians have been known to utter inflammatory and demagogic statements and make defamatory allegations in Spanish -- which they don't repeat in English.

Duke Sorey says he's been approached by several Haitian Americans who swear they're voting for him but will never publicly admit it, fearful of being seen as traitors to their culture. Some Haitian business owners, he says, have told him they're openly supporting Celestin but actually voting for him. "Joe's people go around and put signs in people's yards without asking," Sorey alleges. "[The residents] tell me: ďI'm voting for you, Duke, but don't take that sign out. We don't want no problems; just leave the signs there.' There's a lot of fear of backlash."

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