The Ghetto Governor

Dorrin Rolleís dedication to his district is in question

Rolle is also facing an ethical quandary: The same people who do business with the county and are contributing to the Rolle re-election campaign donate money to JESCA — in effect, ensuring the ghetto governor remains gainfully employed.

For example, auto dealership magnate and real estate developer Alan Potamkin has been a regular JESCA contributor, donating thousands of dollars to the nonprofit. For the past two and a half years, Potamkin had been negotiating with Miami-Dade officials on a land deal that would have seen the county spend $25 million to $30 million to condemn several properties along NW Seventh Avenue so Potamkin could develop a massive auto dealership mall. It's no secret Rolle has been Potamkin's go-to man on the commission.

This is not the first time Rolle has crossed the ethical line. In 2002 he pleaded no contest and paid a $750 fine for violating the county's code of ethics. An investigation by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust charged Rolle with conflict of interest for lobbying county officials on behalf of JESCA and using his influence to have Miami-Dade Police provide security at a reggae festival that benefited the agency.

Rev. Richard Dunn II (shown here) says the Ghetto Governor 
is not an effective county commissioner
Bill Cooke
Rev. Richard Dunn II (shown here) says the Ghetto Governor is not an effective county commissioner
Rolle shows up to help the hood only when someone is shot 
and killed, says community activist Brian Dennis (shown 
Bill Cooke
Rolle shows up to help the hood only when someone is shot and killed, says community activist Brian Dennis (shown here)

Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law ethics professor, says Rolle has a conflict by raising money for JESCA from the people who lobby him. "That is definitely a problem," Jarvis notes. "When he goes around asking for donations, how are people going to say no to him?"

Critics like Brian Dennis, a member of the Brothers of the Same Mind — a vocal group of reformed ex-criminals who advocate for jobs, better housing conditions, and business development in the inner city — say Rolle has failed his constituents. "I don't know why they call him the Governor," Dennis hisses, "because he ain't governing shit."

Rolle supporters, however, defend the commissioner's track record. "It is easy to criticize until you are in his seat," says local attorney and JESCA vice chairman Larry Handfield. "But Rolle has always been committed to improving the quality of life for those who feel they have been left behind. He is the voice of the underprivileged."

But whether Rolle's troubles are dampening his usually congenial disposition is difficult to say. The ghetto governor, who normally enjoys taking center stage, ignored repeated overtures to discuss JESCA's private fundraising efforts and its finances, as well as the opportunity to respond to his detractors. He instructed New Times to fax him a list of questions, but then did not answer them nor return repeated phone calls over the course of two weeks.

Times have certainly been good for Rolle, who has a knack for replacing men who have fallen from grace. In October 1992 Rolle assumed JESCA's top executive post following a scandal that saw the agency's former leader, Archie Hardwick, convicted of grand theft. In 1998 Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Rolle to replace County Commissioner James Burke, who had been indicted on public corruption charges.

Rolle was born in Liberty City on January 14, 1945, when segregation reigned in the Magic City. He graduated from Miami Northwestern Senior High School, where he played defensive end for the varsity football team. He attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, where he obtained his bachelor's degree in early education in 1967. He also earned a master's degree from the University of Northern Colorado.

In 1966 Rolle married Judith James, a nurse who worked at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Miami Heart Institute in Miami Beach. During 37 years of marriage, the Rolles had three children who in turn produced five grandchildren. In 2003 Judith succumbed to breast cancer. But even in mourning, says Miami attorney and Rolle supporter Al Maloof, Rolle never showed his grief. "He always had a smile," Maloof recalls, "even though you could tell tears were running down his face."

After graduating from FAMU, Rolle worked as a Miami-Dade Public Schools teacher before moving on to JESCA in 1972. Handfield first met Rolle when the future JESCA vice chairman was a fourth-grader at Nathan B. Young Elementary School in Opa-locka. Rolle was his teacher. "He was tough," Handfield recalls. "He was a no-nonsense disciplinarian."

Today Handfield, who is also chairman of the Public Health Trust, the agency that runs Jackson Memorial Hospital, is among Rolle's closest allies. "I've seen how the people he helps gravitate toward him," the soft-spoken executive says during a recent interview. "He's made a tremendous difference in the black community. It's why he's known as the Governor."

Alfred Balsera, a public affairs consultant who used to work for former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, recalls meeting Rolle for the first time during a 1994 local Democratic Party event hosted by Governor Chiles. "He reminded me of an old-school neighborhood boss who knew everybody on the streets," Balsera describes.

Sometime in June 1996, Balsera recollects, Penelas kicked off his campaign for mayor with a breakfast attended by 2000 people. "Rolle was responsible for busing in a large group of blacks," Balsera says.

Penelas was running against Arthur Teele Jr., one of the most beloved and respected elected officials in the black community. Yet Rolle backed the Cuban-American candidate instead of his fellow black politician. "He experienced some backlash in his community for what he did," Balsera says. "It showed me at the time that [Rolle] didn't succumb to ethnic politics."

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