Native Son

Billy Hardemon has been running around Liberty City, and away from allegations of wrongdoing, forever

Billy Hardemon wants to get over. "I know I can make it," he says, his eyes constantly shifting between the two men directly across the way and the traffic light at the corner of NW 62nd Street and 7th Avenue, where he has an office at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Business Center. Green turns to red and the chairman of the MLK Economic Development Corporation bounds across the intersection. "Excuse me!" he shouts. Joe Celestin, the mayor of North Miami, and Sidney Charles, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, look up. Seeing Hardemon, a stocky, middle-aged man with boyish looks, an infectious smile, and an unparalleled talent for the street greet, Charles exclaims, "The Mayor of Liberty City!"

Hardemon shakes his head in mock denial. "I'm just a garbage man," he says, self-deprecatingly referring to his day job as an assistant resource recovery administrator for Miami-Dade County's Solid Waste Management Department. "Naw, you've got seniority," Celestin corrects him. "You're Wayne Huizenga!" The three men laugh; Hardemon may not have as much money as South Florida's most famous garbage collection magnate, but in this part of town, he has just as much pull.

If there were a mayor of Liberty City, Hardemon would stand a good chance of being elected. Known by almost everyone on the block and in county government, the self-described grassroots activist has been involved in community politics for over twenty years, twice even running for the county commission. Most recently he has dedicated himself to opposing HOPE VI, the federally funded initiative that threatens to replace the historic James E. Scott Homes public housing project where Hardemon himself once lived with fewer, more expensive properties. Hardemon, believing HOPE VI to be nothing more than a replay of the urban gentrification/"Negro removal" programs of the Sixties (see "Our Lady of the Projects," New Times, July 5, 2001), asks, "Where are people from Scott Homes supposed to go, man?"

Steve Satterwhite
Operation Greenpalm alumni James Burke (top), Howard Gary (center), and Calvin Grigsby
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Operation Greenpalm alumni James Burke (top), Howard Gary (center), and Calvin Grigsby

Hardemon represents a constituency -- overwhelmingly black, impoverished, and disenfranchised -- that has almost no connection to local government. The community's city and county commissioners are little more than abstractions, names and faces on billboards and storefront posters at election time. Billy Hardemon is real. The person to talk to if you have a problem. Someone who has the ear of the people on those billboards and posters. Literally and figuratively, the man on the street.

His popularity and the influence he wields in the community are, in part, the product of a lack of alternatives. "Because there is so much need in the African-American community," explains one long-time black observer, "those who would take the risk to speak out, people like." Even when serious questions are raised about their integrity. Six years ago, Hardemon was Miami-Dade County Commissioner James Burke's chief of staff. The two men were approached by friend and former Miami City Manager Howard Gary, one of black Miami's most famous political sons, with an offer: money under the table for a piece of San Francisco businessman Calvin Grigsby's $180 million bond deal to refinance the debt for improvements at the West Miami-Dade garbage recycling plant. A bribe. Part of an FBI sting nicknamed Operation Greenpalm. Gary, already facing the possibility of prosecution for previous dirty dealing, wore a wire.

Burke, Hardemon, and Grigsby were eventually indicted on charges of bribery and money laundering, Hardemon for allegedly accepting a payment of $50,000. The trial that followed featured extensive audio and videotape of Hardemon and his boss seemingly discussing the cash-for-trash contract scheme with Gary. "You know, the way I see it, Howard," Hardemon is heard reassuring Gary, who had expressed concern that perhaps Grigsby might not hold up his end of the bargain, "when [Grigsby's bid is approved] everybody will be taken care of. When it's done."

When only Burke was convicted -- video showed him pocketing a down payment of $5000 in Gary's office, then proclaiming, "This is a wonderful country" -- prosecutors were visibly shaken. U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, displaying a talent for understatement, told a Miami Herald reporter: "Given the strength of evidence in this case, we're disappointed."

Hardemon's post-acquittal celebration became almost as famous as the trial, which concluded in 1999. The Herald reported him screaming triumphantly from the passenger seat of his Red Ford Mustang convertible, as his wife Barbara drove away from the federal courthouse, "Billy Hardemon! Not guilty! Billy Hardemon! Not guilty!"

He not only beat the system but couched his victory in undeniably racial terms. Taking a page from the Clarence Thomas playbook, Hardemon dismissed the proceedings as "a high-tech lynching." His defiance -- loud, proud, and public -- earned him no small amount of street cred, the prevailing currency in inner-city black Miami. It also garnered him a considerable degree of sympathy, thanks in large part to opinions like those expressed by the Miami Times, a leading African-American newspaper, which, in a 1999 editorial entitled "The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Males," named Hardemon's old boss James Burke among a litany of black leaders who had fallen victim to what the paper termed the "investigation hatchet."

Indeed it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that however Hardemon's reputation might have suffered in white and Latino Miami as a result of the scandal, it is more than made up for by the respect he gained in certain segments of the black community, where he is seen by some as innocent and by others, rightly or wrongly, as the man who did it and got away clean. That standing allows Hardemon to keep helping the community. Or, maybe, just keep hustling.

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