The Ghetto Governor

Dorrin Rolle’s dedication to his district is in question

This past January 26, inside the Miami-Dade County Commission chamber in downtown Miami, Dorrin Rolle played MC for an early-morning ceremony honoring several government employees celebrating 30 years or more of county service. As usual, the "Ghetto Governor" — as the county commissioner is affectionately known by his family, friends, co-workers, and supporters — was dressed impeccably in a dark two-piece suit, crisp white shirt, brilliant pink tie, and matching breast-pocket handkerchief.

A roly-poly man with a slight limp, Rolle strutted to the podium, cracking one-liners to the county workers sitting in the audience. "You came in here looking like you lost a dollar and found a dime," Rolle, speaking into a microphone, crowed to one solemn-faced bureaucrat.

"Sorry that we can only give you a plaque," Rolle later quipped, "but that is all the budget would allow." He chuckled, revealing a broad smile that sparkled like the gold bracelets and pinkie rings adorning his hands. "I want you to feel good about this because we need to laugh as often as we can," he philosophized. "It's therapy."

Rolle continued his routine for about another half-hour until he was interrupted by a belated birthday surprise. (He turned 61 this past January 14.) The commissioner's children, grandchildren, friends, and several dozen well-wishers from the James E. Scott Community Association (JESCA) — the storied social service agency where Rolle earns an annual $167,528 as president and chief executive — emerged through a side entrance and filled the meeting hall. The master of ceremonies had become the guest of honor. "Nobody told me they declared a national holiday where I work!" Rolle bellowed, eliciting raucous laughter from the crowd.

"We wanted to recognize you today," explained Miami-Dade employee relations director Maria Casellas, who helped organize the surprise. "But you have to be quiet or else forget it," she warned Rolle.

For the next hour, department directors, assistant county managers, commission colleagues, family, and other Rolle fanatics took turns heaping praise on him. "My father has sacrificed so much to make a difference to so many people," said his daughter Yvette. "For that I will always admire him."

She closed with one of Rolle's favorite catch phrases: "Daddy, ya done good!" A beaming Rolle grabbed Yvette in a bear hug. "Who taught you those big words?" Rolle asked.

During the love fest, Rolle received a plaque, a proclamation, and a painting of a young black father holding a newborn babe. Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz trotted out a birthday cake with candles. Commissioner Rebecca Sosa serenaded him: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday our governor, happy birthday to you!"

Finally Rolle reclaimed his microphone duties. "The governor doesn't have a word to say," he said. "I just thank God for allowing me to awaken this morning." Had he known about the surprise, Rolle continued, he probably would have skipped the meeting. "But it sure feels good to be honored!" he gushed. "I just like to see and make people laugh and smile because you never know when a storm is coming your way."

For the past eight years, Rolle has lorded over a district of 102,000 residents that encompasses the village of El Portal, Miami, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Liberty City, and Opa-locka. During that span, he has been a darling among high-rollers who do business with Miami-Dade County.

Yet for all the adoration Rolle receives at county hall, he is generating as much revulsion in the historically black, violence-plagued neighborhoods he represents. His reliance on campaign contributions from county hall vendors and lobbyists, many of whom are not black and live outside his district, has dented Rolle's street credentials. According to neighborhood activists and inner-city residents, Rolle is more interested in helping the individuals who keep him in office than the people he represents.

Four years ago, Rolle narrowly escaped a runoff against first-time candidate and Haitian-American political activist Lucie Tondreau, who capitalized on Rolle's dependence on big-money contributors by painting him as the special interests' candidate. Today Rolle is entering the final leg of his re-election campaign and is facing another viable opponent in Phillip Brutus, the first Haitian-American elected to the state legislature.

To defend his seat this time around, Rolle has raked in $361,485 in campaign contributions — raising $253,625 in a three-month span earlier this year. Most of that cash rolled in during several fundraisers hosted by some of the most prominent movers and shakers doing business at county hall. And the primary is still two months away.

Rolle is also battling accusations that he has mismanaged JESCA's finances and abused his position as county commissioner to benefit the nonprofit.

A recent audit by Miami-Dade County Public Schools revealed JESCA racked up $175,500 and $15,000 in bank charges in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The school system is among several local, state, and federal government agencies that supply funding for JESCA, an 81-year-old organization that runs a myriad of social service programs such as helping ex-offenders obtain schooling and jobs, and providing low-income families with daycare and early-childhood education.

According to its 2004 financial statement, JESCA had overdrawn its bank accounts by $331,299. In essence the organization was using grant money meant to help inner-city youths stay in school to cover bank fees and pay salaries with cash it did not have on hand.

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