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On a recent balmy July afternoon, Valria "Val" Screen stands in the living room of George Williams's Allapattah house, chatting up the 83-year-old homeowner and voter about her desire to replace Audrey Edmonson as his county commissioner. The 43-year-old attorney, sporting pearl earrings and a matching necklace, wears white sneakers, dark jeans, and a white campaign T-shirt that displays her pretty portrait. She speaks in a deliberate, soothing voice, relaying her story about growing up in Brownsville as well as her credentials for public office.
"This community has been in a sad state of affairs for far too long," Screen says as she walks out the front door. "I hope you consider me the better candidate."
"I sure will," Williams assures her.
For more than three hours, Screen goes door to door, meeting with and making her pitch to 19 residents. Between now and the August 26 election, Screen aims to knock on hundreds of doors in her push to unseat Edmonson, an almost impossible, quixotic mission in Miami-Dade County. In 15 years, no incumbent county commissioner has lost re-election. Edmonson is one of six officeholders facing an opponent this year (one incumbent is unopposed). The odds are stacked high against all six challengers.
Like her commission colleagues, Edmonson has raised tons of cash — in her case, nearly $250,000, from people who do business with the county — money now at her disposal in her bid to hold on to the seat. Screen, a former lobbyist who once represented high-profile clients such as Carnival Cruise Lines, the Miami Heat, and AT&T, has raised a little over $27,000.
Dario Moreno, director of the Florida International University Metropolitan Center, says that of all the candidates challenging the commission incumbents, Screen has the best shot at defeating one. But, he adds, "The mountain Screen has to climb is mighty steep. You have to go back to 1994. That was the last time a county commissioner lost re-election."
Single-member districts and campaign fundraising heavily favor incumbents, but Edmonson has been in office since only 2006. "The important thing to watch is voter turnout," Moreno explains. "Screen has got to get her people out to vote."
At least on paper, Screen — who recently secured the Miami Herald's endorsement — seems formidable. She recently served on the board of the Miami-Dade Children's Trust as well as on the Miami-Dade County Ethics, Integrity, and Accountability Task Force, two highlights of her campaign pitch.
She was born in 1965 at Brownsville's now-defunct Christian Hospital to a single mother, and never met her natural father. Her mom remarried a Baptist deacon named Lonnie Screen, who adopted Val and her younger sister Angela, and both took his last name.
Screen attended Bethune Head Start and elementary, middle, and high schools in North Miami. As an 11th-grader, she participated in a mock legislature program at Florida State University. Upon graduation in 1983, she won a full scholarship to the University of Miami, where she earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and later obtained a law degree.
In 1990, at age 25, Screen got her first taste of county government as an intern for Cynthia Curry, a longtime bureaucrat who now serves as County Manager George Burgess's senior advisor. The same year, Screen landed a full-time job as a legislative aide and subsequently became chief of staff to the late Arthur Teele Jr., county commission chairman. "He was a big fish in a small pond," Screen says of Teele. "He hired me because I was good and I tried to match his intellect."
Two years later, Screen resigned from Teele's office and went back to UM, where she earned a master's in business administration in 1997 and a law degree in 1998.
Between 1997 and 2004, she lobbied on behalf of 91 companies and individuals seeking approvals from the county commission, including controversial customers such as Homestead Air Base Developers, a consortium of local builders who wanted to erect a commercial airport near Everglades and Biscayne national parks.
"I know I can do the job," Screen says. "This district needs someone who can follow up and get to the truth, and not just accept whatever Mayor Carlos Alvarez and George Burgess bring to the table."
Screen has come out swinging against Edmonson at candidate forums across the district. She has attacked the commissioner for voting in favor of controversial proposals, including extending the Urban Development Boundary west to accommodate a Lowe's home improvement center and an office complex.
The upstart, who works as the development director for the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, also criticizes the incumbent's support of a $3 billion "megaplan" to use tourist and development tax dollars to, among other things, finance construction of a port tunnel, two museums at Bicentennial Park, a streetcar, and a baseball stadium for the Florida Marlins. The funds would come from two community agencies created to spur development in blighted neighborhoods such as Overtown and the Omni area.
Her stance against the megaplan has scored Screen a powerful ally in Norman Braman, the auto magnate who is suing the county and the City of Miami to kill the proposal. Braman, through family members and entities he owns, has donated $4,000 to Screen's campaign.
"Why can't those tax dollars go to the African-American community?" Screen asks. "It seems to me that [Marlins owner] Jeffrey Loria would be last in line for those funds." Screen calls Edmonson a follower who has not brought any new initiatives to the table to help her community. "She's a 'me too' vote on the county commission," Screen says.
Screen's comments resonate in the predominantly black residential neighborhood of Allapattah, which Albina Sumner calls home. President of the Allapattah Homeowners Association, Sumner accompanied Screen on her afternoon campaign walk, introducing the hopeful to residents. "I wasn't going to get involved in this commission race until Audrey [Edmonson] voted for the megaplan and to expand development into the Everglades," Sumner says. "That was it for me."
Meanwhile, Edmonson is not taking Screen lightly. This past July 30, during an interview at her campaign headquarters on NW 62nd Street, the commissioner accused Screen of running a negative campaign. "My opponent keeps talking about bringing new ethics to the commission," Edmonson said. "Yet not once have you seen me brought up on any type of corruption charges or had negative publicity."
Edmonson gave up her mayoral seat on the Village of El Portal council in 2006 and was appointed by the Miami-Dade County Commission to replace Barbara Carey-Shuler, who had resigned suddenly. As Carey-Shuler's anointed successor, Edmonson sits on the dais next to Natacha Seijas — the local political equivalent of going from pitching in single-A baseball to joining the New York Yankees' starting rotation.
In her 20-minute meeting with New Times, Edmonson defended her performance, pointing out she has sided against developers and county contractors who have donated to her campaign. She cited as an example her vote against the Crosswinds project, a controversial mixed-used residential development proposed for Overtown. "I don't feel I owe someone because they gave me a campaign contribution," Edmonson says. "I have a mind of my own."
Nevertheless, just two years of incumbency throws an insurmountable advantage to Edmonson, says Mario Artecona, executive director of the Miami Business Forum. "Short of indictment or incarceration," he says, "you can't get them out of their seat." The root of the problem, Artecona adds, is the amount of money officeholders raise from the business community.
"I constantly hear complaints from business members about the low quality of our elected officials, yet their names are all over the incumbents' campaign reports," Artecona grouses. "In this town, it is easier to write a check than to make a statement."