Soaring Aspirations

At almost one o'clock on the dank, starless early morning of May 18, 1999, a half-dozen people are gathered at the studios of WOCN-AM (1450), a fenced-in box of a building along an unlighted stretch of warehouses on NE 71st Street near Third Avenue. The next four hours will see more than the usual comings and goings at the radio station on this busy night. A group of three or four will be on the air without interruption, talking nonstop about the election.

For the first time in history, a Haitian-American man is close to winning the mayorship of a sizable U.S. city -- North Miami, population 50,000 -- and the candidate's supporters are literally campaigning around the clock. In six hours voting will begin.

Lucie Tondreau, five months pregnant and rubbing her eyes after a short nap, has just arrived at WOCN. The station broadcasts mostly in Spanish, but the weekday midnight-to-5:00 a.m. slot features Creole programming hosted by a Haitian businessman whose radio name is Jackie Relaxx. As in previous political contests, Relaxx has dedicated his entire five hours on election eve to campaigners for Joe Celestin, the Haitian candidate for mayor.

Tondreau, a medical laboratory technician, plans to spend much of the night here, taking phone calls and exhorting her listeners to go to the polls. She greets Eddy Delmont, who has driven directly to the station after finishing his night shift as a postal supervisor in Coral Gables. Tondreau, Delmont, and two men file into the studio and sit at a wide table, each setting down a notebook or sheaf of notes in front of microphones attached to the table. In the adjoining control booth, Relaxx is introducing his guests over a syncopated background of Haitian compas.

"Our compatriots are here because a very important event is about to happen," he says. "And that is the mayoral election in North Miami today, Haitian Flag Day, when our own Joe Celestin is running for mayor."

This is the third political race in three years for Josaphat "Joe" Celestin, a charismatic 42-year-old businessman whose temperament and financial history appear equally volatile. In the primary election a week earlier, Celestin finished far ahead of the other three mayoral candidates but was forced into a runoff with veteran councilman Frank Wolland, an Anglo. Also in the primary, fellow Haitian-American Ossmann Desir decisively won a council seat, a major accomplishment that few have had time to savor during the frantic six days leading up to the mayoral runoff.

This relatively minor municipal election has turned into an event with enormous symbolic impact for all involved. It has been the Haitian community's first massive and mostly unified show of voting force; the first significant threat to North Miami politics as usual; and a harbinger of maneuvering for Haitian votes by both the Republican and Democratic parties in preparation for next year's state and national elections. It has also been the most hostile and racially divisive election most observers can remember.

"The polls will open this morning at seven o'clock," Tondreau begins, glancing down at the telephone beside her with one line already blinking. "If you don't have a way to get to your polling station, call us and we'll arrange to pick you up. Call us if you have any questions. Remember, today's the day! Vote for Joe Celestin, number 116."

"It's so important to exercise your right to vote," adds the bespectacled Delmont, a wiry man in his mid-thirties still neatly dressed in brown slacks, starched white shirt, and patterned tie. "We have been too long without a voice. We must be able to influence the world in which we raise our children, and the only way is to elect people who can speak for us."

Tondreau and Delmont are part of an on-air tag team. In the next few hours they'll be joined by others who've just left work or who are on their way in. It's reminiscent, on a smaller, embryonic scale, of the crowds at Miami's Cuban radio stations around election time, urgently discussing the virtues of various candidates and appealing to Cuban pride to get out the vote.

By six o'clock, as the sky is lightening, the diminutive, doe-eyed Tondreau will be five miles away speaking on another program at WLQY-AM (1320) in North Miami, the only 24-hour Creole station in town. Tondreau is Joe Celestin's designated spokeswoman, but in most respects she is just another of the hundreds of volunteers who have all but forsaken sleep, jobs, and family for the past several months. Yesterday and every day for weeks before that, Tondreau and other Haitians from throughout South Florida -- car dealers and clergymen, nurses and insurance salesmen -- have appeared almost nonstop on Creole-language radio. They have registered and educated first-time voters and witnessed absentee ballots, and have knocked on door after door in North Miami's residential neighborhoods. Delmont is one of several men who have even called on nightclubs and pirate radio stations to urge younger Haitian Americans to vote.

The AM-radio campaigning will continue through the day and past poll-closing time at 7:00 p.m., a reminder of the potent symbol of Haitian empowerment Joe Celestin has become. Cars flying Haitian flags will have radios on full volume as they pass slowly by polling places. Even the Haitian national anthem will be drawn into the service of the campaign, warning, "We won't tolerate traitors in our ranks."

Long after the ballots are counted and Celestin loses by just over 400 votes, radio announcers will continue to speak of him as a hero. While Frank Wolland and his jubilant supporters celebrate at an Italian restaurant, about 100 Celestin faithful gather at the Gwen Margolis Community Center for a postelection party, broadcast live on WLQY-AM.

Some important guests attend this party. Standing in the middle of a semicircle of allies, Celestin introduces the chairman of the state Republican Party, Al Cardenas. (Celestin last year switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican, but the North Miami elections are nonpartisan.) Cardenas has just arrived from Tallahassee and will fly back in the morning. With him are state party official Portia Palmer, county Republican Party chairwoman Mary Ellen Miller, party activist George Mendes, Miami City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, and Miami-Dade school board member Manty Sabates-Morse, among others. Not only has the Miami-Dade Republican Party contributed $5000 to Celestin's race, party operatives personally campaigned for him during the final week.

"If anybody here is even thinking that tonight's effort wasn't worth it," Cardenas says to the weary group, "I ask you to think about how far you have come." He concludes his short speech to applause: "I'll say goodbye to you on behalf of Governor Bush and myself, and know we'll always be here for you." (Bush, for his part, had signed a letter mailed to voters the week before, in which the governor praised Celestin's "strong business background and education credentials" and his "commitment to the community of North Miami.")

For the top Republicans in Florida to take such notice of a nonpartisan municipal election, one in which their candidate lost, could only mean the Republican Party is already working to win over Haitian voters for the big elections of 2000. According to reliable estimates, more than 100,000 Haitians live in Miami-Dade County, and though Haitian-American voters traditionally have been Democrats, so far they have shown more loyalty to Haitian candidates than to either political party.

But the significance of this one election goes beyond the demonstration of an immigrant group's growing political experience and how the Republicans used the scenario for broader purposes. Celestin's unsuccessful race not only changed the political dynamics of North Miami, it transformed the way most Haitians in South Florida view themselves and their community. For the first time Haitians aroused fear in high places: fear of losing power. And that means they now command a little respect.

"After the election my experience has changed 200 percent," says Leonie Hermantin, interim executive director of the nonprofit Haitian American Foundation and one community leader who didn't endorse any candidates in the North Miami elections. "Now people respond quicker to me. Now I don't have to be well-known. I just say Haitian American Foundation and they hear Haitian and respond. The difference in treatment is astounding. People are going out of their way to include Haitians on panels."

"It's not about Joe," adds Eddy Delmont, echoing countless other statements by both friends and foes of Celestin. "It's about us. This is about representation for the Haitian people."

For many people, however, it was about Joe. That Celestin emerged as the pioneer and the symbol is ironic, for he simply doesn't fit the role. Even some Celestin loyalists are apt to describe him as an opportunist, a demagogue, or as self-interested. Such impressions stem at least partly from Celestin's lack of forthrightness about his credentials and finances.

He is president of his own company, Joe Celestin Civil Engineer & General Builder, P.A., and he is indeed licensed as a general builder by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. But Celestin is not licensed to work in Florida as a civil engineer. He claims to have studied engineering at the prestigious Faculte des Sciences in Port-au-Prince. To obtain a Florida engineering license, however, one must meet extensive U.S. academic and professional requirements.

Celestin's business address on NW Seventh Avenue in Liberty City is the same as that for Tropical Rent-A-Car, of which he is listed as chairman on state incorporation papers. Tropical holds a county occupational license to sell used cars and operate a charter service, but its state license expired more than a year ago. Celestin says he has resigned from the corporation. But he still owns the business property and currently owes the county more than $2200 in delinquent taxes.

In 1993 First Union National Bank filed suit against Celestin and Tropical, alleging that Celestin defaulted on a $100,000 loan. In 1995 the bank won a judgment against Celestin for more than $137,000. As recently as April of this year the bank was still trying to collect. Celestin contends the matter is closed because the bank's attorneys never answered a motion to dismiss the case. First Union attorneys say the matter is not closed but they can't comment because it remains in litigation.

Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation sued Celestin in 1997, alleging he defaulted on finance agreements. That case is also pending in Broward County District Court.

Over the past fifteen years Celestin has operated several companies, including a clothing manufacturing business, shoe store, furniture store, car lot, and a surgical-supply business, all of which have been dissolved by the Florida Secretary of State's Office. Celestin says the companies closed because contracts to supply various government offices expired.

His clothing company, Antillean Garment, which was dissolved in 1992, was at the center of a Dade-County bidding controversy in 1989. Celestin won a large uniform-sewing contract with the county, then lost it when a competing bidder accused Antillean of shoddy workmanship and of violating bid procedures. Celestin's lawyer at the time was current Miami City Commissioner Art Teele, a Republican who has continued to be one of Celestin's strongest supporters. The Miami Herald reported in 1996 that Celestin was $1.3 million in debt, a figure he does not dispute today.

A native of Port-au-Prince, Celestin says he moved to Miami in 1978 and got involved in Democratic politics twelve years ago. After working in several campaigns he unsuccessfully challenged James Bush III in 1996 in the Democratic primary for the District 109 statehouse seat.

Carline Paul, a public-school teacher and prominent Haitian-American activist, was one of Celestin's early supporters during the 1996 campaign and regularly invited him to speak on her radio show. She is now one of the few community leaders speaking out against him. "I know too well that until we become elected to office, we will not get our fair share," Paul says. "However, what we often do not do is take the time to evaluate who's coming to us to tell us that they want to represent us. As someone who's been working in the community fourteen years and had the opportunity to work with Joe Celestin in one of his previous campaigns for statehouse, I know the man is just power-hungry. His credibility doesn't go from here to the end of the room."

Paul says she became disillusioned with Celestin toward the end of the 1996 campaign. She asked him for a donation to the annual summer picnic for her nonprofit organization Haitian American Youth of Tomorrow. The politician's $150 check bounced, she recalls, but he apologized and phoned his bank in her presence. He assured her a certain officer at the bank would cash the check at the bank. But when Paul asked for that officer, she was told he was on vacation and that the check had been written on a closed account. "Everybody who knows Joe Celestin has problems with him," Paul says. "He's a slick opportunist. But even the people he's hurt, he's convinced them to put aside their differences because we need a Haitian in office."

Celestin calls Paul's check tale a "flat lie." He asserts he requested his bank not honor the check after an officer called to tell him Paul was cashing the check personally, not in the name of her organization.

Yet Celestin's followers don't judge him by his financial difficulties, which plague many Haitian entrepreneurs. And no one questions his intelligence, drive, and personal magnetism. Prominent in the minds of many Haitians interviewed for this story is the fact that Celestin was willing to put himself on the line. "No one else could have faced all the opposition and racism and gotten people together to work this hard," says Aude Sicard, a Broward activist who has volunteered for Celestin each time he's run for office.

In 1998 Celestin was one of an unprecedented five South Florida Haitian Americans who declared their candidacies for positions in the state legislature and on the Broward County school board. At the time only three Haitians had held elected office anywhere in the United States, all on the town council of tiny El Portal, tucked between the City of Miami and Miami Shores (two are still on the council).

This surge in candidacies was accompanied by other forms of political activism. Miami's Haitian community began a national grassroots lobbying movement that soon found support in Washington, New York, and Boston. The goal was to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would legalize 40,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants and save them from deportation. After a year of lobbying, which began in late 1997, lawmakers from both parties pushed the legislation through Congress in October 1998.

Florida International University sociology professor Alex Stepick thinks the movement on behalf of the congressional legislation was a catalyst for Haitian political participation, leading to the large number of office-seekers in the 1998 elections and the subsequent solidarity behind the two North Miami candidates, Joe Celestin and Ossmann Desir. "A number of people have said it seems reasonable that the Haitians' effort to get legalization really precipitated their involvement, this [North Miami election] being the biggest breakthrough," says Stepick, a specialist in Haitian immigration. "Usually with immigrants there is some precipitating event; Mariel precipitated the Cubans' being involved in politics."

In a panel discussion convened this past November in Washington, D.C., by the National Immigration Forum, a handful of academics discussed "The Immigrant Vote in the 1998 Elections and Beyond." Florida International University professor Dario Moreno opined, "The most interesting aspect of the 1998 election cycle ... is the rise of the Haitian-American vote in South Florida. The Haitian Americans voted as a bloc. So the Haitian-American vote is now up for grabs in South Florida, and the party they align with is going to be the party that best speaks to their issues."

Moreno could have been referring specifically to Celestin, who had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, and only days earlier had lost his second election. This one had been for state senator from District 36; Celestin had gone up against well-funded Democrat Kendrick Meek. "I personally met with Joe Celestin when he was contemplating the senate race," recalls Miami-Dade County Democratic Party chairman Joe Geller. "We consider the Haitian community very important, and I had heard a rumor he might be considering switching [parties]. We had a meeting for several hours, at the conclusion of which he told me he was absolutely not switching, and then he proceeded to do so."

Although Celestin says he switched because Democrats were taking Haitians for granted and he wanted to keep from "putting all our eggs in one basket," it was also a way to avoid a certain defeat in the Democratic primary. The state Republican Party donated $10,000 to his campaign, and he polled impressively in heavily Haitian precincts, but Meek, son of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, won decisively. After the election Celestin sued to have Kendrick Meek unseated because of alleged vote fraud; the case is still pending. Carrie Meek, who is revered by many in the Haitian community for her work on immigration causes, became one of the few locally influential black politicians of either party to decline to endorse Celestin for North Miami mayor.

His entrance into North Miami politics just a month after the state senate election was brash but not surprising. "This was all planned from the beginning," claims attorney Ron Cordon, Celestin's campaign manager and a founder of the Haitian American Political Action Committee, one of at least two organizations set up in the past year and a half to back Haitian candidates. "Since January of 1998 a group of Haitian-American business people have been looking at the numbers of registered voters and where we lie demographically," Cordon explains. "We mapped out a strategy as to what seats would be possible and began to execute it."

Celestin irked many North Miamians because he hadn't lived there long. He claims his home since 1998 has been his fiancee's mother's house in North Miami, but his detractors point out that he listed his address only months earlier, during the state senate race, as unincorporated Miami-Dade just north of Miami Shores. Still, Celestin's living quarters didn't bother people as much as the gall he displayed in thinking he could be mayor of a town without having gone the more humble route of first running for council or seeking appointments to city boards.

North Miami is the county's fourth-largest municipality. Of its more than 50,000 residents, according to 1990 census data, approximately 44 percent are white and 32 percent are black; Hispanics of both races comprise about 25 percent of the population. Since Haitians are included among blacks, no one knows exactly how many Haitians live in North Miami.

There is no doubt, though, that over the past fifteen years a significant migration of local Haitians has taken place, from the Little Haiti area northward, especially to North Miami and secondarily to North Miami Beach. Of North Miami's 18,000 registered voters, more than 38 percent are black, almost 39 percent are white, and 18 percent are Hispanic. Celestin claims there are 6000 Haitian voters in the town, although the number cited by many political observers is 3000 or less.

Despite North Miami's high proportion of black and Hispanic voters, its five-member city council includes just one black member and no Hispanics. After this past election, the racial composition didn't change, though the lone black member is now Haitian instead of African-American.

It was by most accounts an election from hell -- a pitched battle between two cultures and two world views, mucked up with racism. Some supporters of Frank Wolland pandered openly to bigoted whites; Celestin's campaign was built partly around sometimes exaggerated portrayals of a racist and self-serving North Miami power structure.

"Celestin came in and divided the city by race," complains Duke Sorey, the African-American councilman who was defeated by Ossmann Desir. "They tried to make it a black-white issue, although it wasn't." With Celestin and Desir receiving endorsements from the black weekly Miami Times, as well as black American politicians such as Art Teele, Barbara Carey-Schuler, Willie Logan, and others, Sorey found himself caught in political limbo. His past efforts to have more black police officers hired and his work on behalf of after-school programs that served mostly Haitian children were deemed insufficient by many blacks. An anonymous, venomous photocopied newsletter called Spectrum that was widely distributed before the election castigated Sorey as "the white man's flunky and puppet."

At an early candidates' forum on the town's west side (lower-income, higher-minority), Celestin set the tone for his campaign when he flatly denounced the shortage of blacks and Haitians in influential positions of any sort in North Miami. He infuriated many whites when he compared the town to Mississippi before the civil rights movement. "The three other candidates were all trying to be nice and positive and throwing bouquets around, then Celestin came in late and he just ripped into them," recalls attorney Joseph Weil, a supporter of Wolland and former city attorney for several Miami-Dade municipalities. "He said they weren't offering anything and didn't care about the west side; they were just over to harvest votes. It was clear he was going to run a gut campaign; he was not going to play nice sweet goody-goody games."

More than anything, though, Celestin ran a campaign targeted at Haitians. Whites indignantly recall the candidate declaring, "North Miami belongs to the Haitians, just as Miami belongs to the Cubans." Celestin swears he never said that, only that Haitians may become a majority in North Miami if population trends continue. Celestin's detractors thought his rhetoric was extremist and demagogic. Yet even Haitians who weren't fond of Celestin responded positively.

"At some very deep, nationalistic level I was pushing for him," says Leonie Hermantin of the Haitian American Foundation. "This is the first time we've had serious contenders in a process where we have really felt disenfranchised. To be Haitian was always an insult. So now we have someone who can speak English, who can bring the governor in to endorse him. He's going to scare these people into listening to us. So what if he's a selfish, egocentric person? This guy is bringing the bread and butter home. I'm sure when history is written, [he'll] be remembered not as an SOB, but as a pioneer and trailblazer."

Frank Wolland, who served on the council eight years before becoming mayor (the city's weak-mayor system allows him no more power than any other council member), insists the North Miami government has not ignored Haitians. He points to after-school programs that benefit Haitian children and numerous (often unpopular) votes he cast while on the council to allow zoning variances for Haitian storefront churches and businesses. Yet at the start of the election, political insiders say, hardly anyone in the North Miami establishment was taking the potential Haitian vote seriously. The two leading white mayoral candidates, Wolland and Anthony Caserta, were essentially running against each other (Ted Ravelo, the fourth candidate, was carefully securing support behind the scenes from politically involved Haitians, but because Ravelo never was considered able to win, the support dissolved).

Wolland had a poll conducted in January that surveyed only English speakers and showed him beating Caserta 2-1. Meanwhile Haitians from all over Miami-Dade and Broward were contacting residents and signing up absentee voters and campaigning for all they were worth. "The Anglo community wholly underestimated what the Haitian community was capable of doing," affirms Scott Galvin, who won his race for a District 1 council seat after years working as an aide for Carrie Meek and then for her son. "For all the years Haitians were moving in, we kept saying one of these days they're going to be a factor, but not yet."

On May 11 Celestin came away with 46 percent of the vote to Wolland's 34 percent. Celestin had needed 50 percent plus one to win outright.

That night there was a big party at Ossmann Desir's office on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 129th Street. Inside the single-room office, people packed together under fluorescent lights, a few carrying their own bottles of rum. A DJ played rara (Haitian street music) and improvised raps about Desir's and Celestin's election triumphs. "Ossmann Desir! Ossmann Desir!" the disc jockey chanted, punching his fist in the hot air. The crowd, waving upstretched arms, joined in. A disco ball began revolving, casting shards of colors through the room. Outside, a front parking lot was filling up with celebrants. Desir arrived to cheers and was rushed inside, where his wife embraced him emotionally.

In addition to esteemed Creole radio personalities, the two Haitian council members from El Portal showed up. So did Phillip Brutus, the Democrat who'd lost his 1998 statehouse race by 51 votes and has already declared his intention to run for the same seat in 2000.

For a brief time last year, the talk of the community was the fistfight between Celestin and Brutus at the Miami Arena, ostensibly over a soccer match. They had to be separated by police, though neither was arrested. But that was behind them. Brutus had only positive words for his fellow politicians and their supporters. "From this day forward," Brutus declared, "the Haitian community will not be taken for granted. We will field a candidate in every race possible."

When Celestin drove up, he was all but pulled from his car, hoisted onto shoulders, and carried up to the front door. Led by the disc jockey, the audience, bathed in sweat and yellow fluorescent light, raised its hands and chanted "Jos-a-phat! Jos-a-phat!" Celestin spoke from a makeshift stage. "The battle is on," he cried, "and we'll win the war on May 18, flag day for Haiti!"

In wars such as this election, use of radio airwaves is vital to a successful campaign. Thus Creole-language radio, the nerve center of the Haitian community, was forced for the first time to open its airwaves to non-Haitians.

Frank Wolland knew he had to reach the great segment of Haitian voters whose only news medium is Creole radio. So early in the campaign he contacted a Haitian programmer about buying advertising time on WLQY. In Creole AM radio, so-called programmers buy blocks of time from the station management. The programmers make their money back by selling segments of "their" time to announcers and advertisers, at a cost of anywhere from $100 to $400 per hour. Celestin had his own weekday program on WLQY and was a regular guest on other talk shows. In this way he'd been informally campaigning for months, apparently without paying for the time (if he had paid, he would have had to report the expenses on his campaign finance forms, which he didn't). None of that bothered WLQY management until Frank Wolland came on the scene.

Wolland says he bought $2000 worth of airtime from a programmer at WLQY more than a month before the primary. He was going to speak with an interpreter for a half-hour on Saturday mornings. The afternoon before his first scheduled appearance, however, Wolland was informed that, following a protest by Celestin, WLQY management had decided Wolland couldn't go on the air. The reasons aren't clear; station managers won't talk about it, though Wolland says they told him he hadn't submitted required written scripts in advance.

Instead of accepting the prohibition, Wolland hired an attorney and demanded that the station not only let him advertise, but also give him airtime equal to the time Celestin and his supporters spent campaigning on talk shows. The station's owner flew in from Los Angeles and its corporate lawyer came from Washington, D.C., to meet with the candidates, programmers, and WLQY station managers.

The station agreed to provide to Wolland, free of charge, time segments it normally would have sold. Wolland wound up using his $2000 worth of purchased airtime, plus receiving more than ten additional free hours. (He did not use all ten hours before the runoff, and later applied his remaining time to make public service announcements on behalf of the city.)

Many Celestin partisans were offended not only by Wolland's challenge to the station's policies but by his campaign spots. Close to runoff time, a Wolland supporter recorded two hours of spots with an interpreter, and these ran in fifteen-minute segments throughout the day. The announcements sounded like any other American-style campaign advertisement, extolling the years of service of the candidate, denigrating the qualifications of his opponent. But some of the expressions translated poorly into Creole or, to at least some Haitian listeners, came off as inappropriate personal attacks. Celestin allies were outraged when they heard that their candidate "couldn't fill the shoes" of the mayor, a phrase that in Creole connotes shameful failings much worse than inadequate job qualifications. Celestin was called "a used-car dealer" with an "enormous ego," and was accused of paying his volunteers under the table.

The few Haitians who either spoke against Celestin or simply urged Haitians not to vote on the basis of ethnicity were roundly attacked by callers and even the hosts of the programs on which they appeared. "The fervor and the passion at the possibility of having a Haitian American elected to such a prestigious office seems to have paralyzed everyone to the extent that dissent wasn't an option," recalls Gepsie Metellus, an aide to County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Schuler.

"I said on the radio I'm not going to tell the names of my Haitian supporters," recalls Wolland, "because I don't want retaliation for people who supported me, because it happened."

By the eve of the runoff, Wolland and his inner campaign circle thought they'd completed just about every task necessary to win. Wolland had raised what he thinks may be the most money for any election in North Miami: $66,000. Celestin spent about $16,000. Wolland's workers had already lined up and arranged to pay dozens of people $30 to $50 to stand in selected precincts the next day and hold signs or hand out flyers. He had done late polling in Creole and English, and he saw the high number of undecided Creole-speaking voters as an encouraging sign.

More important, Wolland had been campaigning hard in the affluent neighborhoods east of Biscayne Boulevard. The approximately 4000 eastside voters were Wolland's people: heavily Democratic, professionals, and 70 percent white. They hadn't turned out in the primary election, though, and Wolland wasn't about to let them stay home this time.

Wolland had some questionable help. One eastside resident, Judith Feldman, widow of a former councilman, printed and sent a letter to her neighbors. It was a hysterical call to political arms, warning of a rising "Haitian tide" and predicting that if Celestin became mayor there would be dire consequences, including falling property values and the loss of North Miamians' comfortable lifestyle.

At about the same time ads for Wolland appeared in the Miami Herald. They featured photographs of Wolland and Celestin, noting contrasts in their political experience and qualifications. Nothing strange about that, except the photo of Celestin had been obviously altered to enlarge his nose and lips.

The installation of the new mayor and council members, a week after the runoff, was a cordial affair. While tables of fruit and cheese and slices of chocolate cake waited outside council chambers, outgoing mayor Harold Premer congratulated his successor and the other winners. Celestin was there, ringed as usual by his cohorts. Ossmann Desir gave a short speech in English, Creole, and Spanish. At last Premer called Duke Sorey to the dais to receive a plaque commemorating his previous two years of service to the community. "I'm not finished," a beaming Sorey promised to loud applause. Afterward the winning and losing mayoral candidates smiled and swung their arms into an animated handshake.

Away from city hall, though, pretense was off. Celestin had just filed a civil lawsuit seeking to have Wolland removed as mayor, alleging numerous violations of election laws, including late filing of deceptive financial statements and advertising his party affiliation.

And former councilman Sorey, represented by Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Geller, had filed suit against Desir. Sorey's complaint alleges fraud in Desir's District 4 win, including voting by noncitizens and by people who didn't live in the district. Political consultant George DePontis, who ran Wolland's, Sorey's, and Galvin's campaigns, is helping Sorey document the allegations. "I have investigators out there as we speak," asserts DePontis. "I think 1000 of those people [who voted for Desir] may not be U.S. citizens and got voter-registration cards through the Motor Voter Act. I also believe hundreds of voters don't live in North Miami; they just list an address there."

Although the next North Miami council election isn't until 2001, three Haitian men have already announced they plan to run for the District 3 seat. Until then, says new councilman Scott Galvin, the town's conflicting interests have some reconciling to do. "To bridge the gaps it's going to be up to Frank and Ossmann and those of us who've been involved in what was by far the ugliest election I've been anywhere near in ten years," Galvin says. "If we don't mend bridges now, the next election is going to blow this one away.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >