Keon Hardemon Could Carry Liberty City's Most Notorious Political Family Into County Hall
Keon Hardemon, a broad-shouldered 27-year-old, rings the doorbell outside Geraldine Chiverton's three-bedroom house near the border of Allapattah and Liberty City. He wears a crisp white shirt, a bold purple tie, plaid slacks, and polished brown wingtips. When Chiverton opens the wrought-iron gate, the 54-year-old recognizes him right away.
"Don't worry — I got you," she says. "I voted for you in the primary, and I'm voting for you again."
It's the kind of reception Hardemon has been receiving for months as his campaign to unseat county Commissioner Audrey Edmonson has shifted from long shot to the real deal by forcing a runoff in the August primary.
The result was shocking both because Edmonson had raised ten times more money than Hardemon — and because of Keon's last name. The Hardemons are arguably the most influential political family in Liberty City, but they also come with a truckload of baggage: a federal indictment, countless investigations, and ties to scores of scandals.
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If this clean-cut young lawyer delivers another surprise and topples Edmonson in November, he could carry the Hardemons out of the shadows and into county hall for the first time in decades — for better or worse.
"I love my family," Keon says. "But they are not the ones running for commissioner. I am."
Edmonson, though, says he is just a figurehead for his powerful relatives who want a commission seat to further their interests. "It would not be my opponent running things," she says, "but his family."
The Hardemon clan has been a force in Liberty City for nearly half a century, ever since matriarch Ethel and her 15 children — including Keon's uncle Billy and mom April — moved into two apartments in the James E. Scott Homes in 1965. "Our family was so big we needed more than one unit," Billy remembers.
Billy's political awakening began during a four-year Army stint in Atlanta, where he passed his free time listening to Martin Luther King Jr. on tape and attending desegregation rallies. In 1980, four years after he returned home, the acquittal of four white Miami cops in the death of black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie set off riots in Overtown and Liberty City. "The tragic incident really crystallized my political activism," Billy says.
Billy and his wife Barbara began organizing rallies against police brutality throughout the '80s. In 1990, the couple helped stage a two-year boycott of Miami's tourism industry after city and county leaders snubbed Nelson Mandela.
Billy parlayed that activism into electioneering. Politicians soon realized that, with a legion of siblings ready to help corral voters to the polls, Billy and Barbara could be a powerful tool in turning out the black vote. The pair helped Miller Dawkins get elected to the city commission in 1981 and Carrie Meek win a state senate seat in 1982.
"We were not trying to be political leaders or anything like that," Billy insists. "We were just trying to deal with life growing up in public housing as a poor family."
For Keon, growing up in the Scott projects was about sheer survival. Born in 1985, he spent most of his childhood with his grandmother Ethel while his mom was in the Army. April returned when he was in his early teens. He has met his biological father only twice. "Once when I was in the fifth grade," Keon recollects. "The other time I was in tenth grade."
Even though his mother would take him to rallies, Keon wasn't really aware that his uncle and aunt were important politicos. "He was focused on his sports and his academics," April says. "He didn't talk about getting into politics. He wanted to be a pharmacist."
Besides, Keon soon saw the darker side of the Hardemons' success.
Keon was 11 when his uncle's troubles began. Billy was swept up in 1996's Operation Greenpalm, the biggest public corruption case in Dade history. He and his then-boss, county Commissioner James Burke, and businessman Calvin Grigsby, were indicted for bribery and money laundering. Billy allegedly accepted $50,000 to steer a $183 million bond-refinancing deal to Grigsby's underwriting firm.
Billy's problems didn't stop there. The next year, state prosecutors accused him of stealing $9,700 in campaign funds. They charged him with four felony counts of grand theft, along with 38 misdemeanors for accepting illegal contributions.
But when Keon was 14 — just starting an all-star football and baseball career at Miami Northwestern Senior High — both his uncle and Grigsby were acquitted. (Burke was found guilty.) The four state felonies were dropped the next year when Billy pleaded guilty to 16 misdemeanors and got community service.
"Keon was aware of what was happening with his uncle and his struggle," April says. "We discussed the importance of standing behind him as a family."
Five years later, when Keon was a sophomore at Florida A&M University, another uncle ran afoul of corruption charges. This time the target was Allen, a county lobbyist. The county's inspector general accused him of stealing $27,000 from ten investors by promising a piece of a sludge-hauling contract. Allen sold investors on getting a Mack truck with no down payment and a $50,000 small-business loan, with a $900,000 profit as the payoff. But investigators said he had no ability to deliver.
Allen was charged with one count of organized fraud and 15 counts of grand theft. (In 2007, the felonies were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on petty theft misdemeanors. He received five years' probation.)
While Allen's scheme crumbled and Keon finished college, Barbara and Billy remade the family name as giant-killers by backing Michelle Spence-Jones. With the Hardemons' help, she beat eight challengers for the seat vacated by the late Arthur Teele. Her strongest challenger, Rev. Richard Dunn II, told the Miami Herald that the Hardemons were key to her win: "If you put them out there on the streets, you've got something."
But Dunn also sued Billy for defamation over radio spots in which he proclaimed, "Don't waste your vote on Rev. Richard Dunn. He will be arrested again in 90 days." (The complaint was later dismissed.)
The Hardemons' big victory soon became another source of scandal. After Spence-Jones took office, Billy and Barbara were accused of using the new commissioner to snag contracts. Billy was hired as a lobbyist for Fuel Outdoor Holdings, while Barbara was paid by two developers looking to win massive projects in Overtown and Coconut Grove.
Prosecutors investigated allegations that Spence-Jones had forced the developers to hire Barbara in exchange for her vote, but later closed the case with no charges.
The legal issues haven't been limited to Keon's extended family either. In 2004, then-Chief John Timoney fired Keon's mom, who had been a Miami police officer since 1995, citing a controversial policy prohibiting officers from fraternizing with criminals. April's live-in boyfriend, Gregory Barnes, had served time for cocaine trafficking. Her termination sparked protests from the NAACP, which pointed out that Timoney's own son, Sean, had a drug-trafficking conviction. April was later reinstated.
About five years after that drama, Keon caught the family political bug. He had just returned from Tallahassee and landed a job selling pharmaceuticals for Pfizer while attending law school at the University of Miami.
"He had an opportunity to make a lot of money," April says. "But he decided he'd rather run for public office."
Keon was motivated by the stagnant state of Liberty City. "I came back, and my community was still the same," he says. He quit his job with Pfizer and, after earning his law degree, went to work as a public defender.
From the beginning of his campaign against Edmonson, Keon knew his last name would be an asset. He decided to embrace it. His first move was asking Billy and Barbara to run his campaign, even though the pair had consulted on both of Edmonson's previous victories and planned to work for her again.
"When he told me he wanted to run for Audrey's seat, I was like, Oh shit," Billy recalls. "We decided it was not fair to Keon that we allow our personal interests to stifle his development."
Most observers doubted Keon could make a runoff. Among the four candidates challenging Edmonson, Tacolcy Center executive Allison Austin was seen as the favorite because auto magnate Norman Braman was backing her. But on August 14, Keon bested Austin by 700 votes to claim second place with 20 percent. Edmonson notched 40 percent, 11 points below the threshold to avoid a runoff.
Inside his small campaign headquarters on the corner of NW Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street, Keon claims the controversies that have dogged his family shouldn't reflect on him. After all, he has a clean record.
"I did what I was supposed to do," he says. "I got an education and came back to help my community."
Keon also bristles at Edmonson's suggestion that his uncles and aunt would use his win at county hall to look for a payday. "If [Billy and Barbara] were opportunists, they would still be working for Audrey Edmonson," he says.
Despite Edmonson's cash advantage — Keon raised just $30,000 for the primary, versus the incumbent's $300,000 — Billy believes his nephew can win. He has the support of Spence-Jones, as well as Austin and the two other candidates who didn't make the runoff.
Billy adds that the presidential election will bump voter turnout to 60,000, instead of the paltry 16,000 who showed up for the primary. What's more, Billy and Barbara are key get-out-the-vote organizers for the Obama campaign; as they rally Barack supporters, they'll also be able to push for their nephew.
"You are going to have a lot of people coming out who have never voted for Audrey before," Billy says. "We have just as good a chance at convincing those people to vote for Keon."
Although Keon has criticized Edmonson for supporting the Marlins Park deal and failing to block a move to privatize Head Start programs, the incumbent says she's confident voters will keep her in office.
"When it comes down to it, I am the better candidate," she says. "We can't go backward with a candidate who's going to be on the job learning."
Keon, though, says he's sure the Hardemon clan will propel him to another shocking victory.
"I wouldn't be here without my family," he says.
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