A New Political Complexion

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

The April 14 party to launch Alix Desulme's campaign for a seat on the North Miami City Council had a small-town, familiar feeling, not unlike most political events in this municipality of almost 60,000. Desulme's kickoff, just three weeks before the May 8 election, took place at the Jaycees headquarters on West Dixie Highway. An ambitious 23-year-old from a politically active family in Haiti, Desulme is vice president of the North Miami Jaycees and is involved in numerous other civic and political organizations.

Among those who turned out for the event were state Rep. Frederica Wilson and many political and community activists, the majority of them Haitian American. Desulme (pronounced dez-ool-may) made a short speech in English, which was repeated in Kreyol by campaign strategist Lucie Tondreau. Several other political candidates were introduced, and then a DJ started up some danceable konpa tunes. Someone sliced hunks from a large, slightly lopsided cake and passed around plates, while North Miami City Councilman Scott Galvin, behind the clubhouse bar, poured soft drinks and wine.

A young woman wearing a skirt and ruffled jacket walked in, straight into the open arms of North Miami mayoral candidate Joe Celestin, who exuberantly whisked her into a dance. The 44-year-old Celestin was almost elected the town's first Haitian-American mayor in 1999; many observers believe he stands a better chance this time, his fourth try for political office. (He previously has run for state representative and state senator.)

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

Celestin's opponent also was there at Desulme's party -- mailman Arthur "Duke" Sorey, who apologized for his informal dress, jeans and a "Duke for Mayor" T-shirt, by explaining he'd just come from a full Saturday of door-to-door campaigning. Sorey, a 23-year North Miami resident, is African American, but he knows he can't win without at least a portion of North Miami's large and growing Haitian voting bloc. Two years ago he lost his city council seat to the first Haitian American ever elected to any North Miami office. The contest was bitter and divisive, and a deep resentment remains between two ethnic groups that, in most demographic data, are classified as "Black Non-Hispanic" yet are different by nearly every other standard.

An hour into Desulme's party, Sorey was dancing to the undulating beat along with everyone else, and it seemed possible the 2001 elections in North Miami just might avoid the wrenching, racially charged ugliness of two years ago. After all, Miami-Dade County's fourth-largest municipality has been changing rapidly. The town's entrenched Anglo power structure is dissolving as black non-Hispanics now make up 55 percent of the population, according to the 2000 census. No reliable count has been made of North Miami's Haitian residents, but a widely accepted estimate puts Haitians at about 32 percent of the total population.

Just as the city's elections are nonpartisan, most agree they should also be nonracial. But ever since blacks and Latins began moving into the previously white neighborhoods of North Miami (northward migration from immigrant strongholds, particularly Little Haiti), issues of race and ethnicity have come to underlie most political considerations. Until just a few years ago Haitians, like other immigrant groups whose first concern is for economic stability, were ignored in the political arena. In 1993 the first Haitian American to run for North Miami City Council, Sidney Charles, was defeated. Ossmann Desir became the first Haitian elected to the council two years ago (by defeating Sorey), but many North Miamians weren't ready to accept a Haitian city official. This year it appears most voters expect the inevitable: Haitian political clout more in proportion to their numbers. That would be a big change from the days when men with some money and contacts could claim to speak for a voiceless community.

"Before, any self-appointed person could come up and say, “I'm a leader.' But now those who run for office and win are anointed as leaders," observes Leonie Hermantin, executive director of the Haitian American Foundation. "Now [the Haitian community] has elected officials; now we've stepped up to another level. Now to legitimize your leadership you either have to be on somebody's team so you're known to be in this person's camp, or you run for office."

Adds Desir: "This election might be an historic one. For the first time since 1926 [when North Miami was incorporated] you might have a black majority on the council." Almost certainly the new mayor will be black (a white former mayor entered the race at the last minute but has little chance to win); a black man will definitely win the District 3 seat, where Desulme faces two Haitians and one African American; and Desir already represents District 4. (In 1999 tiny El Portal was the first municipality in the nation to elect a majority Haitian city council, including a Haitian mayor.)

Desulme's District 3 race has been a somewhat emotional experience for the Haitian-American community throughout South Florida. Speculation began immediately after the 1999 election about who would take on long-time conservative Councilwoman Jeanette Carr when her seat came up for grabs two years later. Since Carr's first victory in 1990, District 3 has become heavily Haitian. Carr quietly opted to retire.

One of the first to declare interest in the position, funeral-home owner Fred St. Amand, dropped out early on, possibly the result of a scandal that resulted in the firing of his son, Fred St. Amand, from the North Miami Police Department. Leslie Prudent, a popular high school principal, was long considered a shoo-in should he run, but in late March he decided against it. Almost immediately Desulme, driving-school owner Victor Pierre-Louis, and African-American educator Tyrone Hill filed to run. Then veteran Democratic Party activist Jacques Despinosse, who has run several times unsuccessfully for state and county office, jumped into the ring. This move was not welcomed by many Haitian community leaders, who consider Despinosse an important pioneer but who had already positioned themselves behind Desulme.

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."

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: “I'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."

Despite Sorey's hard work, a victory still is considered a long shot, particularly after former North Miami Mayor John Stembridge declared his candidacy just a few hours before the filing deadline. Stembridge, 62 years old, is white, Republican, and seems to have no interest in actually serving as mayor again. He speaks of his past successes in improving race relations and lists among his main concerns "the safety of women when they go shopping in our city." Stembridge won't discuss the generally held theory that his candidacy serves only the purpose of ensuring a Haitian victory by attracting white residents who would otherwise vote for Sorey or not at all.

Perhaps the ploy won't be as successful as Celestin's side hopes. On the other hand, Celestin may not need the extra help. He knows he's the front-runner. He says he has no intention of jeopardizing that status by being contentious (as he was perceived in 1999), and he adds he's tried to mend fences with everyone who opposed him in the past. "I've learned a lot since my last race," he muses. "I know it's more important to be united. I know this election is mine to lose."

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