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From The Back of the Bus to the Driver's Seat

These are heady political days in the black communities of South Florida. Last week Carrie Meek, granddaughter of sharecroppers, was sworn in as U.S. Congressional representative for the 17th District. Also among the freshmen congressmen and women was former federal judge Alcee Hastings, who fought back from a 1989 impeachment to win the election for 23rd District. They, along with Corrine Brown from Central Florida, are the first blacks the state has sent to Congress since 1873.

In local politics, a federal judge's decision December 23 to accept a thirteen-district election plan for the Metro Commission was hailed as a victory in the black community. It marked the end of a six-year struggle by a group of ten black and Hispanic voters to open up the commission to minorities. The plan creates three districts with a majority black population, seven districts with a majority Hispanic population, two with a majority of whites, and one district with a plurality of whites.

Since the judge's action, a consuming topic of debate in black Miami has concerned who will run for the three black district seats. (The election is scheduled for March 16; qualifying begins January 19.) From the tables at Jumbo's, the popular seafood restaurant in Liberty City, to packed church pews in Overtown, Opa-locka, and Brownsville the gossip is furious. "The last time black people were this excited politically was in November 1960, when Kennedy was elected," observes attorney H.T. Smith, who is considering a run for one of the seats. "A lot of meetings are going on, a lot of discussions. This level of hope, this level of anticipation, this level of participation is unprecedented in my lifetime."

District 1 includes the City of Opa-locka and the neighborhoods of Carol City, Crestview, and Norwood. Betty Ferguson, a speech professor at Miami-Dade Community College and a neighborhood activist, is widely considered a front-runner for the seat. She has twice waged unsuccessful campaigns for the county commission: in 1986 she lost to Barry Schreiber and in 1990 failed against incumbent Commissioner Mary Collins. As of early this week at least two other lesser-known candidates had announced their intentions to vie for the District 1 seat: Samuel Brunt and Rev. Abraham J. Thomas. Brunt is a minority business coordinator for Gerrits/Urban Joint Venture, a construction enterprise. A native of Baltimore, Brunt worked for Metro-Dade for five years as a minority business specialist in the office of minority business development. Thomas, a 21-year resident of District 1, is an assistant director of the Beckham Hall homeless shelter and was formerly a community relations specialist for the Dade County Community Relations Board.

The speculation surrounding District 2 -- which includes El Portal, North Miami Beach, and parts of Liberty City and Little River -- received a jolt when the immensely popular Rev. Victor Curry informally announced his intention to run. New Birth Baptist Church, which he founded less than two years ago, is one of the fastest growing congregations in Dade and has more than 3000 members. The 32-year-old Curry will be running for public office for the first time.

He will face former state Representative James Burke, who lost his bid for a state Senate seat last year to former school board member Bill Turner. Even though he has lived in both Districts 1 and 2, Burke says he decided to run in District 2 because he didn't want to run against Ferguson, whom he calls "a good friend." He favors his chances against Curry because District 2 shares most of the same constituents with the state House district he represented for ten years.

Although widely rumored to be a candidate for District 2, former state Representative Darryl Reaves says he's definitely running in District 3, which is shaping up to be one of the most interesting races in the county. The district includes most of Overtown, Brownsville, the southern part of Liberty City, and a portion of Little River. The boundaries are similar to state House District 106, a seat Reaves resigned in his bid for Congress last year. He was trounced in that election by Carrie Meek.

Reaves was a former law clerk to H.T. Smith, who says he's also weighing the possibilities of a run for the District 3 seat. "Everyone's wondering what H.T. is going to do," says black political consultant Norbert Seals of The Ptolemy Group. "Everybody's wondering what Teele's going to do. They are the 800-pound gorillas, for lack of a better word."

Incumbent county Commissioner Arthur Teele, Jr., who won his commission seat in a bitter contest against Barbara Carey, says he is unquestionably running for District 3. In the 1990 race, Teele, a Republican, won the Anglo and Hispanic votes but lost the black vote. Asks consultant Seals: "The question is this: To what extent has Teele overcome his Republican negatives?" Already other potential candidates are taking aim. "He comes into Darryl Reaves's neighborhood and runs, he's wiped out," Reaves snaps. "That's not hype. I've lived here my whole life. Our old machine is still intact."

"If I make an annoucement that I'm running, it doesn't matter whether Teele's in or out," says Smith, who attended college with Teele, pledged the same fraternity, and went to Vietnam at the same time as the commissioner. "I'm not running in Little Havana. I'm running in Overtown, Liberty City. Teele can't beat me in that district. He can't beat me in 1, 2, or 3."

Rev. Richard P. Dunn says he, too, is "seriously considering" a run for District 3. The possibility of a Dunn candidacy, in fact, worries Teele more than any other. "Reverend Dunn and Reverend Curry together," Teele muses. "They create an energy that's unique to Dade County. It's unlike any other duo in politics."

Other names mentioned as potential candidates for District 3 are former county commissioner Barbara Carey; Paullette Wimberly, former vice chairwoman of the Dade County Democratic Party and an unsuccessful candidate for state Representative last year; Tom Washington, once a prominent businessman in black Miami who owned a string of dry cleaners and ran unsuccessfully in several Miami city elections in the Seventies and Eighties; Antonia Gary, associate dean/executive director of the Liberty City Entrepreneurial Education Center and wife of former Miami City Manager Howard Gary; and Dewey Knight III, senior project manager of Tacolcy Economic Development Corporation and 28-year-old son of former Assistant County Manager Dewey Knight, Jr.

A fourth district of particular interest to blacks is the sprawling District 9 in South Dade, which includes the neighborhoods of West Perrine, Goulds, and Richmond Heights. Its demographic breakdown -- 29 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, and 39 percent Anglo -- enables a black candidate with so-called cross-over appeal to win the seat. Two potential candidates rumored in the black community are Commissioner Teele and Donald Jones, a University of Miami Law School professor who ran unsuccessfully against Meek and Reaves for U.S. Congress this past year. Teele says talk of a candidacy in District 9 "is totally untrue," but is probably a measure of the zeal with which he fought to preserve the integrity of the black voting block in that district rather than split it up among several districts. Jones, who commands a high level of intellectual respect in the political community, says he is considering a campaign for the seat.

Community leaders say that as the flush of political empowerment fuels this speculation and banter, black Miami is experiencing an internal, communal bonding. "This has brought the community together," notes attorney H.T. Smith. "In past political equations in Dade County, the X-factor was always the white community. That's where the money came from, that's where the strategy came from -- the consultants, votes, organizational intellect. Now the whole equation is changing. We're looking inward. It's our baby. We've got to nurture it. We've got to take care of it ourselves.


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