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When you enter the storefront on NE 54th Street in Little Haiti, a casually dressed, goateed young man who looks like a philosophy grad student, wearing faded designer jeans and smart-set specs, is sitting behind a cluttered desk. He's talking rapidly in Kreyol with a thin, white-haired man who is trying to help his daughter obtain U.S. citizenship. "This is," the philosophy student says with a sly smile, "connecting with my base."
Ben Photo, you see, is ground zero for a campaign that could produce the most monumental change in black Miami's political history in decades. From here, Dufirstson Neree, a 31-year-old Haitian immigrant, is challenging one of the area's most long-held principles: that either Carrie or Kendrick Meek should represent the region in Congress.
Neree, a long-time Miami resident who recently returned to the city after more than a decade elsewhere, may seem an unlikely choice to end a political dynasty. He has never held political office, has few powerful backers, and isn't a particularly public figure. But consider these three intriguing details about him.
First, at age 23, when many mortals were getting their first jobs, the kid started Little Haiti's first community-owned financial institution the Little Haiti Edison Federal Credit Union, which became People's Credit Union in September 2004 and has helped hundreds of low-income people obtain loans. Second, there is the master-of-the-universe resumé (a bachelor's degree from Brown University, and two more a master's in business and another in public policy from Harvard); he has founded two nonprofit organizations, worked three years for the Inter-American Development Bank, and raised more than a billion dollars in private investment for projects in Latin America. Third, he's a charismatic, articulate, former Archbishop Curley Notre Dame football star who speaks three languages (French, Kreyol, and Spanish) and who spent his childhood in Allapattah and Liberty City. This is no carpetbagger.
"Dufirstson has a very unique combination of financial literacy, policy know-how, and community knowledge," says Marc Villain, former chairman of the Haitian-American Political Action Committee, a nonpartisan organization that tries to recruit Haitian-American candidates. "He could be a legislative force."
Villain, also former president of a Little Haiti credit union, acknowledges it will be difficult. Meek, after all, has solid support in the district and raised close to $600,000 in his last race. But Villain won't count Neree out: "If he can raise money and mount a serious challenge, and these candidates are compared pound for pound, issue to issue, Meek will have a very serious race."
But what's even more threatening to the Meek dynasty than Neree's impressive resumé is the simple fact that he's Haitian-American. The 17th Congressional District has the largest concentration of Haitian-born voters of any congressional district in the nation; they account for an estimated 30 percent of the population in that district.
"I've never heard of a Haitian candidate for Congress," says Jean Monestime, a North Miami city councilman. "I believe he is the first."
State Rep. Phillip Brutus, the Little Haiti Democrat who became the first Haitian elected to the Florida legislature in 2000, isn't acquainted with Neree, but he knows Haitian-American voter behavior. "It's inevitable," says Brutus, citing the demographics. "The 17th District will send the first Haitian-American to Congress. It has to happen."
Neree is a native of Cap-Haitien whose family moved to Allapattah when he was five years old in 1980. But Neree's father Dufresne was unlike the tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants who fled the oppressive regime of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier that year. Dufresne wasn't fleeing poverty or punishment; he was a sound engineer who frequently worked in the United States for the well-known compas band Tropicana.
By the time Neree was in middle school, he was working part-time for his uncle, Merus Benoit, at Ben Photo, helping hundreds of poor, often illiterate Caribbean immigrants fill out forms and navigate government bureaucracy for fees that ranged from $100 to $250.
The experience was formative. Neree learned about the profound distrust many immigrants have of government and leaders, whether in the United States or Haiti. ("They would constantly complain and say, 'The reason I'm here is because of Duvalier; the reason I'm poor is because of Reagan.'")
Neree, an honor student and speedy football star (all-county defensive back) at Curley, who graduated in 1992, caught the eye of a Brown University football coach, where he spent 1993 through 1997. He played wide receiver for that team and earned a bachelor's degree in economics.
During his college years, Neree became conscious of the dearth of financial institutions in his Miami neighborhood. "In Providence," he recalls, "you couldn't walk more than five minutes without finding an ATM machine. Back home, it was a 50-minute bus ride to use my card."
Inspired by a Brown Alumni Magazine article about a community bank in Brooklyn, Neree began contacting South Florida's Haitian community leaders. In 1999, after two years of writing grant proposals and securing financing from funders such as the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the 23-year-old Neree raised more than $150,000, appointed an eight-member board of directors, and created Little Haiti's first community bank. "If you don't have banks," he says, "people can't invest, buy homes, or create businesses." But right after the bank's charter was approved, young Neree moved on. He went to Harvard.
After earning two back-to-back degrees at Harvard, a master's in public policy and an MBA, in 2002 Neree spotted a posting for his dream job. Soon he was working as a project consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, making six figures, jet-setting to Latin America, and financing public/private projects that, he says, "improved people's lives." But something was missing from the IADB work. "Haiti," says Neree. "There was never any investment in Haiti."
Then came the 2004 coup in Port-au-Prince. Neree was appalled by the muted Democratic response to the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "Not a single one of the 435 members of Congress questioned the fact that Bush did not come to the aid financially or militarily of a president in trouble," he says. "The people responsible for speaking on behalf of the Haitian-American community are not doing a good job."
And the most responsible, he contends, is Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. "He represents the largest Haitian-American constituency in the United States," Neree says, his voice raising. "He is our spokesman."
A Meek spokesperson counters that the congressman has done yeoman's work on Haitian issues. "Mr. Neree is appallingly misinformed. Representative Meek spoke out repeatedly and forcefully throughout the crisis," says press secretary Drew Hammill. "No one has been more outspoken on Haitian issues than Congressman Meek."
In the summer of 2004, Neree quit his IADB job, he says simply, "to help Haiti, to figure out a way to eradicate poverty in Haiti." He kicked off his effort by taking a six-month tour of Latin America. "It's one thing to hear about economic development from financiers and government officials; it's another thing to see it from the ground level."
When Neree returned to Miami this past spring, his attention turned to politics; he increasingly fixated on Kendrick Meek's Haiti policy. Meek, he says, was consistently cosmetic. "He writes letters lots of letters. He travels. But nothing is concrete." Then, in April of this year, the tipping point: Meek traveled to Haiti, met again with Haitian officials ("another cosmetic trip"), and sent out a press release about assuring that "security preparations" had been taken in advance of the elections. Neree was outraged. Many Haitians in Miami oppose elections on the island because the regime of current Prime Minister Gérard Latortue has jailed opposition candidates. "Meek is supporting a position that more than 50 percent of the people in the district believe is illegal," he says.
"I can certainly understand why Mr. Neree is angry and upset, but his understanding of the reality of the situation appears to be clouded by his own ambitions," Hammill comments.
By May 2005, Neree was holding informal focus groups. He'd walk into Little Haiti businesses and ask, "What if a Haitian candidate ran against Meek?" On Labor Day, just three weeks before Meek visited Haiti with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Neree declared his candidacy.
Neree is realistic. The younger Meek is, of course, the son of political legend Carrie Meek, the first African-American female elected to Congress since Reconstruction. Still, widely known as the energetic legislator who spearheaded Florida's popular state class-size amendment, the second-term congressman already has made his imprint in Congress, as a prominent figure on the Congressional Black Caucus and as a member of the House's powerful Armed Services Committee.
What's more, Meek has strong support in the Haitian community. When Jacques Despinosse, a North Miami city council member, was told of Neree's nascent campaign, he responded gruffly: "We're in good shape with Kendrick." The director of the Haitian-American Voter Education Center was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a Haitian congressman. "This guy is an unknown. Let him find some place else to go."
Likewise, Brutus, who believes a Haitian candidate is an inevitability in the 17th, says it might not be this time. "He's largely unknown," Brutus says of Neree. "He's been away from the district. People just don't know where he is, who he is."
Right now Neree is rallying to change that. To adequately deliver his message to voters, Neree says he'll need to raise at least $100,000 in the next three months. He currently has roughly $20,000 raised from family and friends.
Villain, for one, believes that if Neree can raise even 60 percent of Meek's war-chest, the incumbent could have a "good race." Regardless of the outcome, Villain says, a good race will be good for the district. "This district has never had an election," he says.