Big Fish, Little Pond
Otis Wallace is the undisputed heavyweight champion of politics and power in Florida City. Last month the voters in this southernmost Dade community handed him his seventh term as mayor, a knockout streak nearly unprecedented in contemporary South Florida, where political success is normally measured by how quickly your constituents send you out of town to Tallahassee or Washington, and where failure is commonly measured in jail time.
He's the original homeboy, an ambitious student who went away to college, graduated from law school, and returned to his birthplace, where he has held elective office for twenty years -- nearly half his life. "I don't want to be anywhere else," Wallace says simply. "It's where I grew up. I like it down here."
And why wouldn't he? Wallace is about as close to anointed as the democratic process allows. He's a black American in a town where blacks comprise the largest voting bloc. He's a college-educated professional in a community dominated by agriculture and manual labor. And he embodies a sense of pride and accomplishment that is inspired by his courageous stand against racially offensive symbols at his high school.
After twelve uninterrupted years as mayor, he was still able to attract a whopping 86 percent of the votes in the election this past January 23. As a kicker, the citizens also gave him executive power by approving a strong-mayor ballot measure. Everybody knows him, and practically everybody likes and respects him. In a different time and place, he might have been king.
Wallace's kingdom, however, is little more than a roadside blur to most people, a cluster of gas stations and fast-food joints at the end of the turnpike, a pit stop for those on their way to the Keys or to Everglades National Park. When they think of Florida City (if they think of Florida City), they might conjure a cliche image of white-trash rednecks, poor blacks, and stoop-shouldered farm workers inhabiting a godforsaken patch of flatland parched by the sun and brutalized by Hurricane Andrew.
This, needless to say, does not sit well with the 44-year-old mayor. "I've read some things that we're the poorest city in the Southeast," he says as he wheels his city-issue Crown Victoria onto NW Seventh Avenue, a homemade Grover Washington tape providing counterpoint. "No, no, no no, no. I've been to other places and this is hardly that."
As he drives, Wallace points out the homes with manicured lawns, the new townhouses, and the apartment buildings under construction. "It's not a rich city," he continues, "but I think most people are shocked when I tell them that 65 percent of our people in Florida City own their own homes. Most people have this idea of us living in hovels and that kind of thing, and that's just not so. We're poor as compared to Coral Gables, but we're not poor when compared to cities in the Appalachian states. It's just a matter of what you're being compared to."
But even a comparison to Coral Gables can be useful. Just as the City Beautiful's northern neighborhoods are not quite as beautiful as those to the south, so too Florida City's northern section is a poor cousin to the area south of Palm Drive, which historically has served as a line of demarcation between white and black, prosperous and poor. Though the southern end of town has become substantially integrated in the last twenty years, vestiges of the past can still be seen in the north: weed-choked lots, abandoned apartment buildings, shotgun shacks on narrow 25-foot plots.
At the corner of Twelfth Street and Ninth Avenue, north of Palm Drive, sits an abandoned cinderblock building. Constructed like a bunker, doors and windows protected by iron bars, it was once a restaurant and nightclub called Mom's Place, which enjoyed notoriety during the Sixties and Seventies. Mom's was a magnet of sorts, its dim interior drawing daytime drinkers and nighttime carousers, who in turn attracted frequent visits by the cops. It was the roughest spot in a rough neighborhood.
"People would get their purses snatched or cracked over the head for their wallets," Wallace recollects as he steers his car into the parking lot. "As you can see, it's closed now." Blue lettering along one wall announces a more recent incarnation: the Marriage and Family Enrichment Ministry of Pastor John Hoskins. "This was a minister who showed up as our savior after Hurricane Andrew, performing miracles and the whole nine yards," the mayor scoffs. "He was a charlatan."
Wallace knows this neighborhood well. Just two blocks to the north is the house where he grew up with his grandparents and six sisters. His father was absent much of the time, owing to his job as a farm-crew organizer in Clewiston, at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee. His mother traveled up there frequently from Florida City to spend time with her husband, but the separations took their toll on the relationship and it ended in divorce. Eventually she remarried and took the name Marshall. Hattie Marshall worked around Florida City as an office clerk, a packing-house canner, and for Metro-Dade's Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mae Belle Howard and Vera Foster, two of Wallace's aunts, fondly recall that Wallace was pampered as the only boy in an extended family of women. His mother adds, "He was living in an area where it was just so easy to get into trouble. I mean, just around the corner was Mom's -- a bunch of winos, people shooting craps all the time. Eventually it did become a crack house, but he was gone. So it must have been something inside that kept him straight, because the environment was there. It was all around him."
Today the mayor lives south of Palm Drive, in the formerly all-white area of town. He, his wife, and their two adopted children rent a three-bedroom house in the Villages of Palm Bay until their dream home is built nearby. Palm Bay, a development of 150 houses financed by Pittsburgh philanthropist Ed Ryan, was designed to provide affordable housing in the wake of Hurricane Andrew's devastation. Drawing on state and federal housing-assistance grants, the city created a program to subsidize the purchase of the homes, which range in price from $69,000 to $90,000. Approximately one-third of the owners have been approved for subsidies.
Palm Bay was not the only project in the area to ride the wave of post-hurricane construction. Several other housing developments, smaller than Palm Bay, sprang up, as did Florida City's first genuine shopping mall. Located on the east side of U.S. 1, north of Palm Drive, the Florida Keys Factory Shops opened for business a year and a half ago. The mall's 50 retail stores include Nike and Levis outlets, and its success can be marked by the fact that a second phase is due to begin construction later this year.
However, both Palm Bay and the mall project were jeopardized in late 1993 after county code enforcement officers found structural defects at the Factory Shops and discovered that design plans for the Palm Bay homes had never been filed with city authorities. "To this day we don't know who designed those houses," says Roy Van Wyk, the county enforcement official who stopped work on the Palm Bay job. "Little things slip by all the time, but developments don't slip by."
Van Wyk says his attempts to resolve the problems with Robert Barrett, the city's director of building and zoning, proved futile. Barrett, a friend of Wallace, resigned after Van Wyk began investigating his department's enforcement procedures. The city conducted its own investigation, which eventually resulted in an inspector being fired.
Although Van Wyk describes Barrett as being difficult and uncommunicative, he gave Wallace a glowing report. "The mayor was very, very cordial," he recalls. "Whenever I was down there, he always brought me into his office and asked what he could do to help. I'm sure there were a couple of times that he wasn't very happy to see me, but he was always very professional."
Eventually, the problems were fixed. At the Factory Shops, exterior walls were braced with steel girders for reinforcement. And Palm Bay invested more than $1.2 million in repairs and new design plans for houses that were already standing. Last year the project was finally approved by county inspectors.
Andres Duany, the internationally acclaimed architect and town planner, says he has never had a problem with the city's building and zoning bureaucracy. In fact he praises the professionalism of municipal officials and touts Florida City as an ideal location for commercial development. "Mayor Wallace has enabled [development] to happen by simplifying the process of getting permits," he explains. "Most bureaucracies are complicators. Wallace is an enabler."
Duany's involvement with Wallace began in November 1992, while Florida City still lay in ruins after the hurricane. He and partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami's School of Architecture, led a marathon brainstorming session in which engineers, planners, architects, and residents sought to create a new city master plan. For ten days they gathered under a large tent and contemplated the future. In the end, the participants envisioned seven self-contained neighborhoods, each with its own post office, park, and community center. They proposed making businesses along Palm Drive more inviting by building storefronts closer to the street. Palm Drive itself, they decided, should be narrowed from four lanes to two in order to slow down traffic and encourage travelers to stop and shop.
City officials embraced several of the proposals but rejected others. For example, Wallace argues that narrowing Palm Drive was simply impractical. But the change to storefronts has been incorporated into city planning guidelines. Duany himself designed a new city hall and police complex, which is now under construction. (Wallace managed to have the entire six-million-dollar price tag picked up by state and federal funding sources.)
Duany says Wallace exhibited admirable leadership following the hurricane: "He had a firm grip on what Florida City needed. He saw beyond the current disaster and we made plans for the future, and in some ways the visionary future. Whenever a developer asks where they can do something in Dade County, I say Florida City. It's the only process I can trust."
Andrew's villainous rumble through Florida City came during the mayor's fifth term of office. The storm destroyed much of the city's housing, as well as every public building, including the old city hall. (City business has been run out of trailers ever since.) The landscape was shredded, the citizens left in deep shock. "I remember walking through the [tent] camps with him and his little boy," recalls former congressman Dante Fascell. "And this was not by appointment. We met somewhere and toured together. It was obvious that the people felt good about Otis even under those conditions, and he was seriously concerned. He wasn't playing any games or taking any camera stands. There was no one with a pencil and pad following us around."
Like many local leaders during those chaotic days, Wallace put aside his own needs and those of his family, and instead concentrated on rebuilding. He and Homestead Mayor Tad DeMilly split their time between their respective cities and Tallahassee, where they lobbied legislators for aid. Both cities received millions from a special state relief fund. The bulk of the money was used to provide emergency services and to make up for losses in the tax base caused by the migration of thousands of residents from South Dade. About 3000 people -- half of the city's residents -- left Florida City. (The population has rebounded to nearly 6000.)
Richard Anderson, who was city manager at the time, accompanied Wallace to the state capitol and recounts a memorable episode in which the mayor addressed the legislature and managed to grab the attention of the politicians and their frenetic staff members. According to Anderson, as Wallace described the fear and despair that had overwhelmed his town, the room fell silent. "I have seen them all, from the president to the governor on down," Anderson says, "and I have never seen quite that reaction. The way he would react to the questions, the way he was able to style his responses -- it was almost as though he had the questions in advance. He hushed them. It was masterful. It was one of those things that if you had to do it all over again, you wouldn't have changed anything."
From humble beginnings in the poor part of Florida City to a commanding performance before state lawmakers -- a spectacular trajectory to be sure, but in some ways Otis Wallace had been preparing for it all his life.
His high school activism brought him to the attention of influential adults, especially retired state Sen. Jack Gordon, who was sufficiently impressed with the young Wallace to assist him in gaining admission to Michigan State University. (Gordon himself kicked in money for Wallace's winter clothes and for airline tickets.)
By 1974 Wallace had graduated with a B.A. in political science, earned admission to the University of Miami's law school, and developed a romantic interest in a Michigan State student named Greer Davis, who would later become his wife. (Davis went on to earn a law degree from the University of Florida and now works as an attorney with the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.)
In his second year of law school, while still commuting from Florida City, Wallace decided the time had come for him to get involved. He decided to run for a seat on the city commission. "It appeared that in Florida City at that time, black folk were not getting their fair share of the city's benefits," he recalls. "You could build a house on the north side on a much smaller lot than you could in the south section, which meant more crowding. It was strange. It was the law. And the services and the upkeep were better on the other side of town. It was very obvious.
"You'd cross the street and, 'Hey, is this the same town?' Water services were less, everything was less. All the uses that were considered undesirable ended up in the northwest section of the city. They were allowed there but wouldn't be allowed elsewhere."
Wallace pored over voter-registration information and hit upon a strategy to break the hold whites had held on city government for many years. "There was a big political machine in the town when I ran," he recounts. "It was the mayor [John Calautti] and his bevy of commissioners, and either you were on that ticket or you were out. They always won their elections quite easily, and it didn't appear that I would be a threat. So they just laid back and let me have the town. I was an outsider challenging the machine ticket. They didn't take me seriously."
The key to success, he concluded, was to make sure that as many blacks as possible knew he was running for office and that they were registered to vote. So in the weeks prior to that 1976 election, the 24-year-old upstart went door to door. He enlisted his family and friends to help spread the word and get people to the polls.
Not only did he win the election (only the second time a black person had won a seat on the commission since Florida City's founding in 1914), he captured more votes than any other commission candidate. That distinction should have entitled him to the honorary title of vice mayor. But the other commissioners, in no mood to reward a saboteur, voted to suspend procedure and did not bestow the title on him.
The next year Wallace graduated from UM's law school and was hired as a Dade County public defender. In the evening and on weekends, though, he devoted himself to his job as a city commissioner. While his rapport with his constituents remained strong (they returned him to office two more times), his relations on the commission were contentious, a situation he attributed to the white majority that held sway.
However, he did have one white ally, Roy Shiver, a Florida City businessman who'd served on the commission since the Sixties. Shiver, who considered himself a maverick among the white power elite, encouraged Wallace to consider a run for mayor in the 1984 election. "I told him if he didn't run, I was going to quit," Shiver recalls. "I was sick of what the mayor and the others were doing."
Wallace accepted the challenge, in part because of the problems plaguing the city (a criminal scandal within the police department, a serious budget deficit, a chaotic water and sewer department), and in part because it appeared that a black candidate actually had a chance to win the mayor's job. Wallace himself took some credit for the latter development: For the first time in the city's history, more black residents were registered to vote than whites.
"That's one thing I discovered when I came back home [from college]," Wallace recalls. "I studied politics, and they had not had that kind of approach. They would just go out and have a few rallies, but they didn't do the pragmatic ABC's of putting a campaign together. I did research -- what kind of voting numbers were coming out of the black precincts. They were low, way out of proportion to the population.
"This is a sleeping giant," he remembers thinking. "They got the voters here but they're not voting. There needed to be an inspiration for them [Florida City's blacks] to do so. Once they discovered that they could actually elect a candidate by rising up and voting, they have been voting ever since -- and my candidacy did that."
Incumbent Mayor John Calautti, a 38-year resident of Florida City, was hoping to win his third term, but he found Wallace campaigning intensely, door to door, in the white neighborhoods as well as the black sections in the north part of town. When the ballots were counted, Wallace had captured two votes for every one of Calautti's, a stunning victory. On his coattails, Wallace brought along commission candidates as well, and for the first time the five-member commission boasted a black majority.
Though the election signaled a radical change in the city's leadership, Wallace says residents voted according to candidates' qualifications -- and continue to do so. "I do very well in the white precincts," he points out. "I do very well in the black precincts. I do better than other blacks who are less qualified. I beat the white candidates in the white precincts, too. So the white population has been very fair in voting. For instance, [Florida City] is still over 60 percent black. Roy Shiver was elected vice mayor as the top vote-getter in the city, and he's white. So if it was strictly a black-white thing, there's no reason that the vice mayor of the city should be a white guy."
Wallace took a $21,000 cut in pay when he left behind his $44,000 salary at the public defender's office in order to assume his new role of full-time mayor. The job also came with an expense account and afforded him an eight-year-old Buick with 70,000 miles on its odometer.
It took him a while, but by 1987 Wallace had turned around the water and sewer department. The city collected more than double the hook-up fees in the first six months of 1987 than it had the entire previous year. Meanwhile the public works department continued winning grants to upgrade the town's sewer and water lines. Florida City was also enjoying something of a building boom at that time. Approximately 400 new hotel rooms became available along U.S. 1, serving travelers to the Keys and to Everglades National Park. (Wallace credits the upgraded sewer and water system with lowering construction costs and sparking interest among hoteliers.)
Wallace's political star grew brighter in 1988 when he ran for re-election without opposition. But the next year his personal life began to unravel. The Miami Herald revealed more than 175 health and safety violations among 200 apartments Wallace had purchased in Homestead and Florida City. The violations ranged from exposed high-voltage wiring to damaged pipes that spewed raw sewage into common areas. Homestead's code enforcement director said Wallace was "one of the largest violators we have." Media coverage described the mayor as perpetuating many of the inequities he had campaigned against, and that he had become a victim of his own success, seduced by power and greed.
The rental units, Wallace says today, represented an investment intended to supplement his income as mayor, which still lagged behind the salary he'd earned as a public defender. But the deal itself, he concedes, should have warned him off. "It was one of those get-rich-quick, no-money-down things. I didn't have the money," he says, explaining that he was supposed to gradually pay off a $700,000 mortgage. "I bought a bunch of properties and they were what they were when I bought them. But obviously, when I bought it, overnight the owner became a slumlord. The property was in the same condition the day before I bought it and nobody said anything. But the minute I bought it, it was supposed to be instantly transformed with a magic wand into beachfront condos. The process of changing properties like that to what you consider presentable is a long one, and obviously I was not going to be given the time to do that. It's one of the mistakes of my life, so I have to live with it."
Wallace is quick to note that he no longer owns the bulk of the properties. In August 1989, he handed back to the mortgage holder 154 apartment units. More recently the Homestead Economic and Rebuilding Organization demolished 26 units and then purchased the land on which they had stood. Still, Diana Osborn, Homestead's code enforcement supervisor, says Wallace remains listed as the owner of a vacant two-story building at 862 SW Sixth St. The property has accumulated more than $50,000 in various fines. Wallace says he sold the building but financed the purchase and held the mortgage. When the new owner suffered losses after Hurricane Andrew and stopped making payments, he deeded the title back to Wallace A along with the code violations and fines.
Despite the "slumlord" controversy and the emergence of a political challenger, Wallace received 71 percent of the votes in 1990 when he ran for his fourth term as mayor. He also successfully campaigned that year for a charter amendment that changed the city's administrative system from strong mayor to manager. The reason: Wallace wanted to open a law practice and lighten his burdens at city hall.
The commission then hired Richard Anderson as city manager, but when he left in 1994, Wallace had to step in. He took on the responsibilities and the salary of the manager but kept his position as mayor.
During last month's elections, the issue of administration was once again before the voters in the form of a charter amendment. The man who led this latest strong-mayor initiative is a Wallace supporter. "When you hire a city manager, you have to have them long-term," says Kerry Bullard in explaining his motives. "If you want to get rid of them, you have to pay out the balance of their contract. And we furnish them with a car and gas. It's costly. Strong mayor is a two-year term. If they get too big for their pants, you get rid of them the next election." Florida City voters agreed with Bullard, and once again Otis Wallace is a full-time, salaried mayor. The pay is better these days: $59,000 per year.
Though Wallace is not practicing law today, the profession has fascinated him since childhood. His mother, Hattie Marshall, recalls that her son always wanted to be an attorney. "He used to run home every day to watch Perry Mason," she says. "He used to tell me, 'Momma, when I grow up, I want to be just like Perry Mason.'"
That long-running television series, starring Raymond Burr as the crusading attorney, promoted a strong and clear message about right and wrong, the moral imperatives of impartial justice, the importance of truth and fairness -- themes that would soon find resonance in Wallace's life.
In 1968, less than six months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., seventeen-year-old Wallace and a few black friends founded an organization they called the Students Organization for Unity and Liberty (SOUL) at South Dade High School north of Homestead. The organization, which Wallace headed as president, was formed in response to harassment from white students after blacks voiced their objections to the school band's uniforms, which were fashioned to resemble the outfits worn by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. They also had protested the band's practice of displaying Confederate flags while marching. The school's football team completed the image; they were called the Rebels. (Wallace, a member of the band, played trombone.)
"It was a uniform worn to fight for the right to keep other people in slavery A and that other people was me," Wallace says today, his voice still filled with anger. "People were casting us as militants. They were accusing that the Black Panther movement had influenced us. We couldn't just be kids who cared about something. I wasn't politically astute enough to know who the Black Panthers were. We weren't politically aware, politically connected. We just didn't like it." Wallace spoke with teachers and school administrators, but no changes were made. So he and other black band members simply refused to play when the uniform was worn.
As he recounts the dramatic events that took place that fall semester of his senior year, Wallace steers his Crown Victoria along the same route taken by the school bus that carried him and many other young black students to South Dade High. The Dade County Public Schools were engaged in a program of voluntary busing designed to bring the district into compliance with federal law prohibiting school segregation. Wallace and his friends from Florida City were outsiders of a sort, their presence at South Dade an effort to integrate the largely white student body.
"I've been here a few times since I left, but never with this on my mind," he says as he approaches the school's entrance. Near the front gate stands a flagpole that elicits a rush of memories, particularly of the day he and other blacks walked out. "They had hung a black dummy from the flagpole in effigy with a noose around its neck, and they had greased the pole so you couldn't get it down," he recalls.
More and more buses arrived that morning, unloading scores of black students from outlying areas, and they began to gather around the flag pole. For several hours they stood together and demanded that the dummy be removed. Newspaper and television reporters arrived. The tension was palpable. At last a truck with a crane was dispatched to remove the offending symbol, after which the students quietly left the school and found rides home.
The days that followed were nightmarish for Wallace, an honors student at the top of his class. He was cornered in a school bathroom and threatened by seven white boys. Friends rescued him before violence could erupt. He, his sisters, and their mother received threatening phone calls at home. "The farmer kids were bringing guns to school," he remembers. "You know, guns in the pickup trucks. The school wasn't protective in those days."
School authorities set up meetings among parents, students, and teachers, but administrators did not change either the mascot or the band uniforms. So members of SOUL and their families packed into cars, convoyed up to Miami, and spoke before a meeting of the Dade County School Board. Wallace's eloquent speech made an indelible impression on board member Jack Gordon, who would later be elected to the state senate. Recalls Wallace: "I said, 'How would you like it if you were playing tuba in the band and it had a picture of a swastika on the side and you were dressed as storm troopers?' After the meeting, Gordon told me it hit him like a lightning bolt."
Despite the impassioned speeches and the sense of outrage from students and parents, the school board chose not to force any changes on South Dade High. Disgusted with the board's lack of action, and feeling increasingly unsafe on the school grounds, Wallace and more than 55 other black students were allowed to transfer in midsemester to Mays High, a predominately black school in Goulds. (Gordon would later explain to Wallace that he and other board members feared that if they had imposed changes in the heat of the controversy, reaction among white students might be violent. A year later, however, the school dropped the Confederate emblems.)
Although Wallace never had a chance to complete his band class because he transferred to Mays High, he still received an F from South Dade. That failing mark lowered his grade-point average and prevented him from graduating as valedictorian from Mays. He finished third in his class.
"He recognized his rights, and he didn't want them trampled," recounts Raymond Larry, chairman of the Vanguard Committee, a South Dade watchdog group founded in 1977 to lobby politicians on minority issues. (Larry and Wallace are cousins by marriage.) "He wasn't adamant or anything like that. He was just about the business that he believed and what was a fair treatment to all students."
While at Mays, Wallace was chosen to be a page in the Washington, D.C., office of Rep. Dante Fascell, an honor that ended up being less exciting than he'd hoped. "I grew up so fast," he says in reference to his leadership role in the dispute at South Dade High. "After that incident, I learned so much that becoming a page was anticlimactic. When people talk about high school, they don't talk about the same things I talk about. I can't even remember the goddamn prom. I feel cheated."
Heading south on U.S. 1, back toward Florida City, Wallace is lost in thought. He rarely talks about those days nearly 30 years ago when he was so full of youthful ambition. But recounting his experiences has prompted him to consider the lectures he'll soon be giving at local schools as part of black history month. "There's nothing like having a measurable impact in the community where you live," he says. "That's what I always emphasize when I speak at the schools. Fine, go away to school. Get a college education. But bring it back home. For years we've been growing a whole lot of talent, but it never comes back home. What's the point of going to Louisiana and making things better there? We need you here.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- As MDX Approves $3 Million in Driver Rebates, Anti-Toll Activists Credit Public Outrage
- Wade Contract Fight: What The World Was Like When the Heat Drafted Dwyane
- U.S. and Cuba to Announce Agreement to Open Embassies