Billy Hardemon wants to get over. "I know I can make it," he says, his eyes constantly shifting between the two men directly across the way and the traffic light at the corner of NW 62nd Street and 7th Avenue, where he has an office at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Business Center. Green turns to red and the chairman of the MLK Economic Development Corporation bounds across the intersection. "Excuse me!" he shouts. Joe Celestin, the mayor of North Miami, and Sidney Charles, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, look up. Seeing Hardemon, a stocky, middle-aged man with boyish looks, an infectious smile, and an unparalleled talent for the street greet, Charles exclaims, "The Mayor of Liberty City!"
Hardemon shakes his head in mock denial. "I'm just a garbage man," he says, self-deprecatingly referring to his day job as an assistant resource recovery administrator for Miami-Dade County's Solid Waste Management Department. "Naw, you've got seniority," Celestin corrects him. "You're Wayne Huizenga!" The three men laugh; Hardemon may not have as much money as South Florida's most famous garbage collection magnate, but in this part of town, he has just as much pull.
If there were a mayor of Liberty City, Hardemon would stand a good chance of being elected. Known by almost everyone on the block and in county government, the self-described grassroots activist has been involved in community politics for over twenty years, twice even running for the county commission. Most recently he has dedicated himself to opposing HOPE VI, the federally funded initiative that threatens to replace the historic James E. Scott Homes public housing project where Hardemon himself once lived with fewer, more expensive properties. Hardemon, believing HOPE VI to be nothing more than a replay of the urban gentrification/"Negro removal" programs of the Sixties (see "Our Lady of the Projects," New Times, July 5, 2001), asks, "Where are people from Scott Homes supposed to go, man?"
Hardemon represents a constituency -- overwhelmingly black, impoverished, and disenfranchised -- that has almost no connection to local government. The community's city and county commissioners are little more than abstractions, names and faces on billboards and storefront posters at election time. Billy Hardemon is real. The person to talk to if you have a problem. Someone who has the ear of the people on those billboards and posters. Literally and figuratively, the man on the street.
His popularity and the influence he wields in the community are, in part, the product of a lack of alternatives. "Because there is so much need in the African-American community," explains one long-time black observer, "those who would take the risk to speak out, people like." Even when serious questions are raised about their integrity. Six years ago, Hardemon was Miami-Dade County Commissioner James Burke's chief of staff. The two men were approached by friend and former Miami City Manager Howard Gary, one of black Miami's most famous political sons, with an offer: money under the table for a piece of San Francisco businessman Calvin Grigsby's $180 million bond deal to refinance the debt for improvements at the West Miami-Dade garbage recycling plant. A bribe. Part of an FBI sting nicknamed Operation Greenpalm. Gary, already facing the possibility of prosecution for previous dirty dealing, wore a wire.
Burke, Hardemon, and Grigsby were eventually indicted on charges of bribery and money laundering, Hardemon for allegedly accepting a payment of $50,000. The trial that followed featured extensive audio and videotape of Hardemon and his boss seemingly discussing the cash-for-trash contract scheme with Gary. "You know, the way I see it, Howard," Hardemon is heard reassuring Gary, who had expressed concern that perhaps Grigsby might not hold up his end of the bargain, "when [Grigsby's bid is approved] everybody will be taken care of. When it's done."
When only Burke was convicted -- video showed him pocketing a down payment of $5000 in Gary's office, then proclaiming, "This is a wonderful country" -- prosecutors were visibly shaken. U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, displaying a talent for understatement, told a Miami Herald reporter: "Given the strength of evidence in this case, we're disappointed."
Hardemon's post-acquittal celebration became almost as famous as the trial, which concluded in 1999. The Herald reported him screaming triumphantly from the passenger seat of his Red Ford Mustang convertible, as his wife Barbara drove away from the federal courthouse, "Billy Hardemon! Not guilty! Billy Hardemon! Not guilty!"
He not only beat the system but couched his victory in undeniably racial terms. Taking a page from the Clarence Thomas playbook, Hardemon dismissed the proceedings as "a high-tech lynching." His defiance -- loud, proud, and public -- earned him no small amount of street cred, the prevailing currency in inner-city black Miami. It also garnered him a considerable degree of sympathy, thanks in large part to opinions like those expressed by the Miami Times, a leading African-American newspaper, which, in a 1999 editorial entitled "The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Males," named Hardemon's old boss James Burke among a litany of black leaders who had fallen victim to what the paper termed the "investigation hatchet."
Indeed it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that however Hardemon's reputation might have suffered in white and Latino Miami as a result of the scandal, it is more than made up for by the respect he gained in certain segments of the black community, where he is seen by some as innocent and by others, rightly or wrongly, as the man who did it and got away clean. That standing allows Hardemon to keep helping the community. Or, maybe, just keep hustling.
Cordel, Georgia, is the watermelon capital of the world. "For real," says Billy Hardemon, sitting at a table in the Venetian Lounge at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel, sipping a glass of red wine, recalling the rural town his mother and father left in 1955 to move to Miami. Hardemon seems to take particular pride in relating that little fact about Cordel, turning the potentially racist symbol into a measure of just how far he and his family have come. "We settled in the Grove," he continues, "in one of those shotgun houses along U.S. 1." Billy was born shortly after the family arrived in South Florida, the fifth of fifteen brothers and sisters.
Hardemon doesn't say so (and doesn't have to) but Miami in the mid-Fifties was as segregated a city as there was in the southern United States, and opportunities for blacks were largely limited to domestic and manual labor. "My mother, Ethel, did what we call 'housework,'" says Hardemon, "and my father, L.G., was always some sort of mechanic."
The family relocated to Liberty City around 1960, a time when, Hardemon recalls, a lot of black families were doing the same. "When Overtown was demolished [to make way for Interstate 95], people moved further north." The destruction of Overtown, a thriving community of black-owned businesses, restaurants, and nightclubs, not unlike Harlem in its heyday, still angers Hardemon and, he says, a lot of other people. "Black folks haven't forgiven white folks yet," he believes. "I talk to the elders. I know my history. It's an injustice that hasn't been adequately faced."
Still Hardemon doesn't deny Liberty City had a vibrancy all its own. "When I was in third grade," he remembers, "I got a job cleaning and sorting empties [bottles] and working the register in a local grocery store, Shirley's Market at the corner of Northwest 55th Street and 17th Avenue. I got a real perspective of the community from that store. Everybody came in. Willy the Winehead. Ms. [Athalie] Range [Miami's first black city commissioner]. Everybody."
A wide smile crosses Hardemon's face. "One guy, Mr. B., sold liquor out of the back of his car, you know, behind the store," he explains. "He'd sell other things, too, at a discount. Things he didn't always have a receipt for." Mr. B., suggests Hardemon, was a fence, a buyer and seller of stolen goods. And, Hardemon laughs, "probably the best businessman I ever met in my life."
Talk of Mr. B. sends Hardemon off on the poetics of hustling. "Miami is the hometown of Al Capone," he says, perhaps forgetting that although Scarface kept a home on Palm Island, he was from New York, by way of Chicago. "Miami is a gangster town."
Some blacks might have blurred the line between honest and criminal behavior, admits Hardemon, but they weren't doing anything white folks weren't also doing. "If you were a hustler like Mr. B.," he says, his cadence approaching that of an urban preacher, "that meant you were a hard worker. You weren't hurting anybody." No, indeed. You might even have been perceived as providing a service of sorts, allowing people to acquire from you what they could never have been able to afford in the white-owned stores downtown. Buy a $50 dress for $15. Sell it for $25. Make $10. So what if the shit wasn't exactly yours to begin with? Overtown didn't belong to whites, but that didn't stop them from taking it when they wanted a place to put a highway.
The hypocrisy of the white power structure, insists Hardemon, is transparent. "Hustling wasn't a problem until minorities started making money off it," he emphasizes. "Dead men voting wasn't a problem until they voted for [former City of Miami Commissioner] Humberto Hernandez," who in 1999 was convicted of election fraud and who, coincidentally, was represented by attorney José Quinon, who also represented Hardemon in his bribery trial.
In the informal economy of Liberty City, Hardemon learned that who you knew was at least as important as what you knew. "We got into Scott Homes [around 1965] because my mother spoke with Charles Hadley [a local civic leader and, Hardemon recalls, Howard Gary's uncle]. As a result, we got two apartments. We knocked down a wall and we had five bedrooms!"
That apartment, the grocery store in which he worked, and school were the limits of Hardemon's world. "I'd see kids playing ball or whatever, but I had to go to work," he says. "I didn't run in the street a lot."
Which isn't to say he wasn't street smart, even when it came to school. "I transferred to Central [Senior High] in my senior year just to get away from an English teacher at Northwestern [Senior High] who had already given me two F's, and was going to fail me," confesses Hardemon.
He had a plan, and it didn't involve going to college. "After graduating [in 1973], I left Miami to go into the army. I wanted to come back with a Cadillac, driving down Seventeenth Avenue. Leaning, you know?"
Hardemon never made it back to Miami in a Cadillac, but he made it back. Often. While stationed outside Atlanta, he discovered there were weekly flights from nearby Dobbins Air Reserve Base to Opa-locka Airport. Somehow he managed, on a fairly regular basis, to talk his way onto the plane. It was on one of those weekend excursions to the old neighborhood shortly after joining the army that Hardemon, for the first time, got into real trouble. "We knew this guy had some money and jewelry," he says, not sure whether to tell the story or not, "so me and two friends from the neighborhood broke into his house." That was the easy part. "The guy came home and started shooting. Actually hit one of my buddies in the leg. Me and the other guy ran out the door and right into a police car." He sighs. No motherfucking cops around when you need one, then you pull some shit ...
Hardemon was taken downtown. And given another object lesson in the importance of knowing the right people: "Turns out the detective who interviewed us was my friend's uncle's partner." Three degrees of separation. Hardemon was sprung. "The cop said, 'Get the fuck out of here,' and we did," he recounts, allowing himself a sly smirk.
Still, he says, the experience changed him. "I realized there were probably all these people in jail who had maybe only ever made one mistake. I went back to Atlanta and started listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. on tape. I went to a desegregation rally with Hosea Williams [a leading civil-rights advocate]. I joined Williams's People's Church of Love."
So it was that Hardemon became born-again, as an activist. "I'd been hanging out with hustlers," he admits. "I'd never been confronted with the civil-rights movement. I came back to Miami with a commitment to serve my people."
Hardemon's baptism by fire came on May 17, 1980, when a Tampa jury acquitted four Miami police officers in the December 1979 beating death of 33-year-old black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie. Members of Miami's black community, devastated and angered by the verdict, took to the streets. The ensuing three-day riot left 18 people dead, 400 injured, and caused an estimated $100 million in damage. Liberty City, the locus of the protests, was particularly hard hit.
"The McDuffie rebellion -- I don't say 'riot'; riot is what white people do when their sports team wins a national championship -- was a historic moment for black Miami," Hardemon recalls today. "One of the main things I remember was the elders telling young people to attack the system. People who before would have been like, 'Boy, put down that rock! What's wrong with you?' were like, 'Okay, right on.'" Hardemon flashes a Black Power salute, then falls back into his chair. "I was very active during McDuffie. Active denouncing the system, demonstrating in the street. But I didn't kill anyone."
Instead he became more radicalized, organizing rallies and street protests in his hometown. "Police brutality, the Mandela boycott. I was at the grassroots for all that," Hardemon says, with more than a little pride.
His activism got him noticed. Hardemon claims he was approached about running for a Miami-Dade County Commission seat in 1991, but turned down the offer. "That was back when we had countywide elections and I didn't think I could compete," he shrugs. Two years later, that all changed. Or, as Hardemon puts it: "We got fuckin' district elections. I said, 'I can run in this district'"; District 2 stretches primarily from NW 7th to 37th avenues, between 62nd and 135th streets.
Run he did, on a platform that seemed, at times, equal parts Al Sharpton and Al Schweitzer. Among his planks: a proposal to post signs around the Liberty City area declaring black men an endangered species, as part of a campaign to raise consciousness about the scourge of black-on-black crime. "I never had so much fun in all my life. I came in third in the primary, behind [New Birth Baptist Church Bishop] Victor Curry and Jimmy Burke."
Eliminated from the runoff, Hardemon nevertheless realized he could still impact the race by endorsing one of the two leading candidates. The choice, to Hardemon, seemed obvious. At least initially. "I saw Burke [a ten-year veteran of the Florida House of Representatives] as an insider, so I told Victor, even before the election, that I'd endorse him if I lost," he recalls. After the primary, though, Hardemon found Curry's camp difficult to negotiate with. "Victor's people gave me their ass to kiss. They didn't think they needed me. I felt disrespected. So I endorsed Jimmy Burke, and he won."
Some would say Hardemon sold out. Others, that he sold well. In exchange for his support, Burke made him his chief of staff, an appointment for which Hardemon is still grateful. "He could have put me in the district office, given me a car, told me to stay the fuck out of his way," explains Hardemon, summing up the standard compensation package for political flunkies, "but he brought me downtown with him instead."
In retrospect, of course, Hardemon might have been better off in the district office, away from Burke's inner circle and the temptations that can befall the right-hand man to the county commission finance chair, the position to which Burke was appointed. But don't expect Hardemon to agree. Indeed, the ex-chief of staff bristles at the insinuation he or his former boss were particularly susceptible to payola. "Look, Jimmy Burke didn't own a house, didn't own a car. If he had been as corrupt as people want to portray him, he would have had something to show for it."
Burke by 1996 may or may not have had much to show for his almost three years in office, but the government certainly did. Specifically, evidence showing the county commissioner accepting money from Howard Gary to grease a $180 million bond refinancing deal for black San Francisco bonds writer Calvin Grigsby. On the surface it looked like a typical hustle: Gary, a former Miami City manager and black pioneer in local government, was out to get his own cut of the deal between Burke and Grigsby, who had previously competed with Gary for county business. A hustle it was, but of a different sort: In reality, as part of a plea bargain arrangement engineered after he was caught on tape in early 1996 offering two million dollars in bribes to another official in an unrelated deal, Gary agreed to wear a wire himself, to set up Jimmy Burke and Billy Hardemon for the feds.
Why did Burke take money from Gary, allowing him to weasel in on what seemed to be a done deal? Hardemon has an explanation. Not the kind of explanation that would fly in court, but the kind that sheds light on the sociology of the backroom. "Burke loved Howard Gary. He idolized Howard Gary," explains Hardemon, searching for just the right phrase. "He was intoxicated by Howard Gary." In fact, Burke himself had brokered the partnership between Grigsby and Gary. "I think Jimmy Burke took the bribe because it came from Howard Gary," insists Hardemon. He believes, or says he believes, that Burke took the money as a favor to Gary, to ingratiate himself with one of Miami's black political icons.
Portions of the surveillance tapes -- embarrassing excerpts like Burke begging Gary to "tell him what to do," assuring him that he, Burke, was "like a robot, like an instrument" -- would appear to support Hardemon's hypothesis. But there is still one outstanding question: Why didn't he, Hardemon, also bite (especially when, as one former associate maintains, "Everybody knew that to get Burke's vote on something, you had to pay twice. You had to pay Burke and Billy")?
"Because I was for giving Grigsby the contract anyway," snaps Hardemon. "That deal was going to save a lot of Solid Waste jobs, which is a department where I had friends, and I liked that. [Hardemon had worked there since 1982; he left to join Burke's staff.] I was already willing to work on behalf of Grigsby." But wouldn't that have made it easier to accept the money? "Not necessarily," he says, smiling. "Howard Gary spent two hours trying to get me to take some money on FBI surveillance tapes. I was like, 'You want to help me? Donate money to my campaign.'" (Hardemon was himself running for a county commission seat in 1996.) Bottom line, he says: "I sensed I was being set up."
Hardemon sensed right. Eventually a jury exonerated him on all charges. "Yeah, it was entrapment," reasons Hardemon, "but the problem with crying 'entrapment' is, well, you did whatever they were trying to get you to do." Burke, currently serving a 27-month sentence for his indiscretions, wasn't so smart. Or so lucky.
In 1996, while under investigation for his role in the Grigsby affair, Hardemon was rehired by the Miami-Dade County Solid Waste Management Department at a salary of $49,000, or, approximately, a five percent raise over what he had earned as Burke's chief of staff. True, he lost the job the following year, when he was accused of accepting illegal contributions during his 1996 county commission campaign, but that episode likewise ended with Hardemon on top: beating the felony rap (though he did plead guilty to sixteen misdemeanor charges), being reinstated by Solid Waste, and receiving $120,000 in back pay to boot.
In 1997, shortly after Burke was removed from office, Hardemon joined the board of the nonprofit MLK Economic Development Corporation. "Service," Hardemon says, quoting his mentor, former Miami-Dade County School District Superintendent Johnny Jones, "is the price you pay for the space you occupy." Hardemon does not mention that Jones, the district's first black superintendent, was convicted in 1980 of embezzling taxpayer money to pay for gold plumbing fixtures in his home. A little public money finds its way into your pocket and right away people think you're a crook.
Hardemon knows how it can happen. In 1991, he purchased the corner store in Liberty City where he used to work as a kid, renaming it Hardemon's Market. The store had been burned out in the protests that followed the 1989 fatal shooting of Clement Lloyd, a black youth, by Miami police officer William Lozano. Hardemon says he hoped to provide a resource to the blighted area. By 1993, however, the business had failed. So the city stepped in and bailed out Hardemon, purchasing the store and forgiving the loan.
Hardemon heard the whispers saying he had taken the city for a ride, an allegation he resents. "Sure, the $25,000 loan allowed [the Hardemon family] to buy the market," he says, "but then we were stuck like Chuck. We were barely operating when Hurricane Andrew hit and then we literally gave away the store to people coming up from [Homestead and the surrounding areas]. Fuck no, I didn't see money from that store. I lost money." Today a parking lot marks the northwest corner of NW 55th Street and 17th Avenue, where Hardemon's Market once stood.
Whatever Hardemon may have lost or gained with the corner market, his status in the community allows him to continue shaking the money tree. "Any politician who has to get votes out of [the Liberty City area] has to be his friend," says one well-connected source, "whether they like him or not. The only reason he got the money for the store is because politicians fear him."
Certainly he has little trouble getting them on the phone when he needs them. "I think if I called most of the elected officials in this town," he states confidently, "they'd call me back. I don't call them with bullshit." He cites a recent example. "We met with [District 3 County Commissioner] Barbara Carey [Shuler] and we said, 'We want to redevelop [the MLK Business Center].' She went out and secured a $100,000 grant for Tools for Change [another economic development organization] to come up with a plan."
It is precisely this knack for getting what he wants out of his connections downtown that made Hardemon, despite the legal troubles looming over his head in 1997, a logical choice for the MLK board. At that time MLK was in debt, the Business Center had few tenants, and there was even talk of dissolving the organization. Since Hardemon joined, taking the helm as chair in 1999, the community organization hasn't exactly flourished (it is still in debt), but things have gotten better: The once nearly empty Business Center has attracted new tenants, primarily small-business owners and some nonprofits (including Youth of America, run by Hardemon's brother, Walter).
But if Hardemon's political clout earned him a seat on the MLK board, and appears to have at least improved the situation at MLK, it also has some of his colleagues worried.
Earnestine Worthy, an MLK board member and an organizer for the Florida chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, remembers welcoming Hardemon at first. "Billy knew the politics, knew the system," she says. "I thought he'd be good for MLK." Now she says she knows better. "I thought Billy was for the people," she groans, "but Billy is for himself." Worthy is worried about Hardemon's plan to raze the existing building to make way for a new facility. "We don't need MLK torn down," she argues. "All we need to do is rehabilitate. What kind of history are we going to have if we keep tearing everything down?"
The complex is outdated and cramped, Hardemon retorts. "It's built right up on the sidewalk," he notes. "We need a new building, one with parking in front." The only parking for the Business Center currently is a municipal lot located in the rear, out of sight and not entirely secure. A rebuilt Business Center, Hardemon believes, might attract a major retailer to anchor the complex. It is not a novel idea. Just across NW 62nd Street, Walgreens is leasing on a site partially developed by another community development corporation, Tacolcy.
Whatever his intentions, MLK executive director Alberta Gray shares with Worthy a sense that Hardemon is on the hustle. "I believe Billy was sent in there to get [the property] out of the community's hands and turn it over to people who want it," she says. Gray fears that Hardemon, for a cut of the action, is liable to do just about anything, including selling out the center entirely to private interests. "He makes all his decisions outside of that office," she maintains, describing what she claims is the secretive manner in which Hardemon runs the organization. "Half the board doesn't know what's going on."
Hilda Hall, a member of the MLK board for the past two years, disagrees, saying the board reserves "an adequate amount of time to discuss things that come up." As for the fear that Hardemon's talent for working the system may ultimately prove more of a liability than a benefit, allowing him to do what he wants with MLK, regardless of the community's best interests? Hall scoffs: "Every business operates based on the relationships it develops in the community it serves."
Despite such reassurances, Gray believes her suspicions of Hardemon are dead on, and are what have gotten her into trouble with the chairman. "The main target at board meetings is me," says the ten-year MLK employee, whose job is threatened by a restructuring of the organization. "Somehow I'm in the way."
Hardemon admits he is currently trying to replace Gray, but says that has more to do with putting MLK on solid footing for the future. "We're looking for someone who can write the grant proposals we're going to need, proposals for big grants," he explains. Gray laughs at Hardemon's line. And suggests he's just the latest in a long line of hustlers. "Whoever has been at MLK," posits Gray, provocatively, "has always had a [hidden] motive for being there."
But, like the disappointed prosecutors at Hardemon's corruption trial, neither Gray nor Worthy can quite put their finger on what wrongdoing Hardemon has actually committed. "There's something behind the scenes," speculates the executive director. "We just don't know what it is yet." Worthy doesn't know either, but she is more blunt about her concerns. "I'm not going to jail behind Billy," she says.
Hardemon has heard all the accusations before. And isn't going to start letting them slow him down now. "I just can't stay out of Liberty City," he exclaims, rolling through the area in his red 2002 Lexus SC430, a hardtop convertible that is a source of both pride and consternation to him. Pride, because, with a base sticker price of $61,600, the car, like the three homes Hardemon owns, is a sign that he has made it; consternation because an automobile that expensive inspires jealousy and gives ammunition to his detractors. "Man, how can you drive a car like that around here?" asks Sam Mason, president of the nonprofit Liberty City Learning Center, a former chair of MLK, and a sometime friend, sometime foe of Hardemon. To Mason the car is at best unseemly, a gratuitous show of wealth in a community where most people are caught in the stranglehold of poverty.
Perhaps. But if there are people in the neighborhood who resent Hardemon's ride, there are others who appear to take vicarious pleasure in it: the man who washes it whenever it's parked in the lot behind MLK, the young brothers who sidle up to it to ask Hardemon about the possibility of a job with the county, the neighborhood toughs who offer to watch it for him, not for money, but to prove they control the street.
For all of the attention the car elicits, however, Hardemon himself -- always moving, always jawing -- remains the main attraction any time he's around. "How much y'all want for those 50-cent watermelons?" he shouts to six or so elderly black men sitting under a large tree in an empty lot across from the parking lot that once was Hardemon's (née Shirley's) Market. Next to the men is a moving truck, its rear door slid all the way up to reveal a pile of fresh watermelons. "Hey! Billy Hardemon!" yells Mr. B., quickly pointing to another member of the group. "You remember Tracy?" Hardemon nods. "I remember all these brothers." And they him.
"Boy," says Mr. B., tall, thickly built, and immaculately dressed in a pair of blue jeans, sport shirt, and cap, "I remember when Billy was just a little boy, couldn't even reach the cash register at that market used to be across the street, but he'd stand on a box or something and bang those keys."
And then Mr. B. smiles. "Billy, how about you let me buy you a couple of those watermelons?" Hardemon protests. But Mr. B.'s not having it. Reaching into his pocket, the fatherly figure produces three worn one-dollar bills, and hands them over to the man in charge of the melons. Billy Hardemon, grinning, thanks Mr. B. and scampers across the street, taking the old hustler's gift with him.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.