Black or Blue

Assistant City Clerk Maria Argudin handed a slip of scratch paper to the four City of Miami elected officials who weren't facing federal corruption charges. Each politico dutifully scrawled his own name at the top, and underneath that the name of the person he believed should replace Miller Dawkins, who the week before had been charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office and suspended by the governor. Then Argudin took the scraps to City Clerk Walter Foeman so he could read the votes aloud.

No one in the Dinner Key chambers on September 16 knew whom the commissioners would choose (or whether there would be a consensus among them), but one thing was certain: The candidates would all be black. They seldom agree on anything else, but on this issue, at least, the commission members were unanimous. "My position, and I want to make it clear, will be that I will be endorsing an African American," Mayor Joe Carollo had preached to WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Michael Putney a day earlier. "I think that the position needs to go to a black." So adamant was Carollo that he had convened a group of prominent black leaders at the home of Miami's first black commissioner, Athalie Range, to draft a short list of candidates.

Sure enough, the winner was Rev. Richard Dunn, a local pastor and radio show host who earlier this month finished third in the race to fill the commission seat left vacant when Carollo ran for mayor. The vote was three to one, with Carollo, Tomas Regalado, and J.L. Plummer picking Dunn and Vice Mayor Willy Gort going with Darryl Reaves, a former state representative. When Dunn realized he'd won, he rocked backward in his seat in the audience, laughed, and bounced his son Richard III on his right knee. Caught up in the good feelings, Gort quickly changed his vote to make the appointment unanimous. After taking the oath of office, Dunn huddled with his new colleagues. They clasped hands into one large fist to celebrate the unified government.

To some, the commitment to select a black commissioner represented a heartfelt, altruistic gesture to ensure minority representation in Miami's governing body. But it represented something else as well. Once again, opponents within the City of Miami staved off the creeping threat of single-member political districts.

Under a district system, the city would divide into regions tailored along racial and ethnic lines. (The mayor would still be elected at large.) More than likely, two commission seats would perpetually be contested among Hispanics, one among Anglos, and one among blacks. "Self-determination is the word that has been coined in the last decade," muses Carollo, an enthusiastic supporter of single-member districts. "I can't think of any better form of self-determination than that."

There is precedent for change. The Dade County Commission switched to thirteen single-member districts in 1993, after prodding by a federal judge. Blacks and Hispanics cheered a victory for their communities. "The irony in all this is that when single-member districts began, they were there to protect the classically defined minorities, i.e., the Hispanics and the blacks," remarks political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "Now they have become a mechanism to protect the soon-to-be extinguished groups that are going the way of the dinosaur: Anglos and African Americans."

As it stands, Miami commissioners run for office in citywide elections. Liberty City residents vote for the same candidates as Little Havana denizens. Historically, this has enabled politicians who receive little support in their own ethnic groups to win office. Cuban-born Willy Gort, for example, captured a seat two years ago despite a poor showing in the Hispanic community, by dominating among black and Anglo voters. J.L. Plummer, who inhabits what is popularly called the white seat, owes his 26-years-and-counting career in large part to his Hispanic support. If he were to run in an all-Anglo district, many of those intimate with the city's political landscape confidently state, he wouldn't have a prayer.

Not surprisingly, there is opposition to the possibility of change. "I don't think the city is big enough for single-member districts," growls Gort, adding that the city's size isn't the only reason he'll fight a district movement. "If we had single-member districts, the commissioners, instead of looking at the problem on the whole, would look only at their own districts. It would be micro government instead of macro, and I don't support it."

Gort's fears of neighborhood balkanization are shared by others, who worry that if the wealthier neighborhoods -- including the condos along Brickell Avenue and the stately manses of Coconut Grove -- are further isolated from the rest of Miami, festering secession movements will erupt. "If the city moves to districts, then the white people will care even less about Liberty City and Little Havana and will likely break away on their own, just like Key Biscayne did," says one black activist who asked that his name not be published. "The city of Miami will be left with nothing but poor neighborhoods."

Former Miami mayor David Kennedy feels that while districts might ensure racial representation, they might also lower the quality of the representatives: "If you go to districts, I am not so sure you would have the same caliber of politician on the commission," says Kennedy, now a political consultant. As an example he cites Janet McAliley, who served on the Dade County School Board for sixteen years. "She certainly was a substantial force," Kennedy says. "But because they switched to a single-member system, she can't get elected."

Through the years, Miller Dawkins has been the most skilled exploiter of Miami's citywide electoral process; the fifteen-year veteran commissioner has relied upon Hispanics and Anglos to propel him to re-election. In 1993, when Dawkins found himself in a tight race against Hispanic radio commentator Margarita Ruiz, his colleagues' assistance guaranteed his triumph. Then-Commissioner Victor De Yurre says he suppressed his antipathy for the mercurial, arrogant Dawkins specifically to protect citywide voting.

The propping-up of Dawkins and the appointment of Dunn aside, Hamersmith believes it's only matter of time until someone forces the single-district route in Miami. "What if the City of Miami doesn't go to district elections?" Hamersmith asks. "Then you are probably looking at a real-world scenario of a city with five seats held all by Hispanics. No Anglo representation nor African-American representation. In the real world, the tendency for power may ultimately be a move for total control. Hispanics clearly have the numbers to do this. Single-member districts are almost mandatory in the city of Miami."

In the meantime, Dawkins might still return to the commission. The seat now occupied by Dunn would revert back to its former occupant if he is acquitted. Dunn, of course, might not be the one who gets bumped: He faces a November 5 election to retain his post. Although no black candidate is likely to register as an opponent, several prominent Hispanics probably will.

Carollo and Regalado have already come out in support of Dunn and are helping to raise money for his campaign. It remains to be seen who Gort and Plummer will back. Their choice is tantalizingly simple: Support Dunn and keep the black seat, or reach out to a Hispanic ally and risk a lawsuit calling for single-member district elections.

The two can count on plenty of advice as the election approaches. Only two hours after Dunn was sworn in, Cuban newspaper publisher and recent commission candidate Eladio Jose Armesto stopped by Gort's office for a private discussion.


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