Irby McKnight, unofficial mayor of Overtown, walks north along NW Third Avenue, cuts a right at Thirteenth Street, and heads over to NW Second Avenue. The deadline for the revolution looms, and he's got hundreds of soldiers to recruit. "There's a whole lot of discontent in this building," McKnight says, standing in front of two Fifties-era apartment buildings outside of which a small group of men stand and chatter. Linda Jones sits nearby on the steps, huddled into a thin black vinyl jacket against the cool February evening, slowly sucking down a Marlboro.
McKnight, a big, round fellow with glasses and unruly front teeth, carries a thick wad of papers under his arm. Can he get a little help taking on the most powerful black man in the City of Miami, he wonders. The official representative of Overtown -- Arthur E. Teele, Jr.? He offers up the papers, hundreds of pages of a recall petition that would force Commissioner Teele into a special election, he explains.
"Can you tell me anything Arthur Teele done besides build parking lots?" McKnight asks Jones, referring to the three small lots on Third Avenue paid for by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which Teele controls as chairman of the board.
"Parking lot?" she repeats incredulously, blinking behind her glasses. "The parking lot! I don't even have no car!"
"Everybody 'round here mostly rides a bicycle," McKnight adds.
"This Overtown," Jones huffs. "We need business. We need jobs."
She points to the dilapidated hulk of a building in which she's spent most of her life. Her mother manages the place, mostly an exercise in laying Band-Aids on mortal wounds. "People paying $235 to live here," Jones rants. "For what? We've got bad walls, rats and roaches everywhere. They do a little patching and in two or three months it's bad again. My mama's own bathroom wall fell in the other day. And she's the manager!"
McKnight commiserates: "We were over on Ninth Street and there's some old ladies over there living on $550 a month in Social Security. These ladies are 78, 80 years old, paying $400 and $450 a month in rent. I asked 'em: 'How do you eat on that?' You know what they tell me? They told me they go stand in line at the homeless shelter to get food! The people live like this and he's building parking lots!"
Jones shakes her head. "Everybody getting rich on the poor," she says. "You know what the problem is? We don't speak out. Or we speak out to the wrong people." She signs the petition.
Down NW Third Avenue, just south of Eleventh Street, a checkers game is under way on the sidewalk outside Lovell Singletary's shoe-repair shop. Three men crowd around a battered checkerboard he keeps there for such quiet evenings. It's about the only place showing signs of life after dark on this desolate stretch, other than the occasional tired pedestrian returning home from work to the apartments next door, or the aimless circling of young men on bicycles. Two elderly men perch on metal chairs, the checkerboard between them resting on their knees in lieu of a table.
The 72-year-old Singletary is about to close for the night, which means the checker champs will have to give it up. Entertainment Tonight blares on the television in one corner, black-and-white images of the rich and famous occasionally swimming up through the snow, discernible in rolling distortions on the small screen. Singletary's friend Al kicks back in a chair next to the TV and stares moodily at a woman's shoe perched on the edge of a machine. Singletary has been rehabilitating shoes in Miami since 1963, in this exact location for more than twenty years. It's a tough place to do business, he says, but he's held things together, waiting for the day when Overtown is supposed to reawaken from decades of dissipation, like a broken man redeemed. "Nothing," remarks Singletary as fitfully as his television, "ever changes here."
Then suddenly something does change, at least in the mood of this crowded little storefront, as McKnight strolls through the door on a mission. McKnight is Singletary's friend. "Lovell, I need you to sign this petition," he says forcefully. "This is Round 2 of getting Arthur Teele out of office."
Singletary is more than happy to sign. Once a Teele supporter, he became disillusioned with Miami's only black commissioner when Teele failed to come through on a grant to help him upgrade some of the old shoe-repair machines in his shop. He grew even angrier when he heard about all the money the CRA spent on the parking lots and numerous consultants. "You'd think they'd try to help the few businesses struggling out here," Singletary fumes. "Why build parking lots when there's no reason for people to come use them?"
This is one of the reasons McKnight (who is also chairman of the Overtown Advisory Board) and like-minded activists in Miami's inner-city neighborhoods represented by Teele -- Overtown, Liberty City, Little Haiti -- last year initiated a campaign to oust the commissioner. It was a rare undertaking in Miami (former mayors Joe Carollo and Maurice Ferré were threatened with recalls, but the campaigns never really took off) and nearly unthinkable in black neighborhoods, so accustomed to rallying around leaders attacked by other ethnic factions in an oft-polarized city.
But 56-year-old McKnight, who supported Teele's 1997 run for the city commission, was bitterly disappointed at the shambles the CRA had become under Teele's watch, and not happy with his proposal to locate new Camillus House facilities in the neighborhood. Overtown residents Henry Crespo and Del Bryan were also unhappy. Why is it, they kept asking each other, that the smartest politician in town can't keep a little redevelopment agency on track? They found that other residents were also dissatisfied with Teele, people like Leroy Jones, the Liberty City ex-con turned respected activist and founder of Brothers of the Same Mind and the Neighbors and Neighbors Association. Jones and Herschel Haynes, president of the Hadley Park/Model City Homeowners Association, were annoyed that Teele didn't try to prevent a cell phone tower from being built near apartments in their area. The core of the recall pack was rounded out by Overtown activist Jacqui Colyer (a candidate last year for the state House), and Christopher Norwood, a young college graduate from New Jersey, bright but still a rookie when it comes to Miami politics.
"The man is arrogant and unresponsive to the community," asserts McKnight. "We deserve better. The people don't want much. They want traffic lights and stop signs and sidewalks that aren't broken. Every door I go to, people aren't happy. This powder keg is ready to blow."
During the election this past November, recall volunteers manned the polls in Teele's District 5, collecting, they say, roughly 2400 signatures on a petition to remove the commissioner from office for the following two reasons: "As chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency ... he has consistently proved himself inept in providing economic opportunities impacting the people who elected him to office. As a commissioner, Mr. Teele flagrantly disregards community involvement in the construction of cell phone towers while aiding and abetting corporate interests over the taxpayers that elected him."
About 1500 of the signatures collected were authenticated by the elections department, enough to propel the recall effort to the next level. Teele had five days to officially defend himself against the petition's charges, but he declined. The recallers then had 60 days to collect about 4000 signatures that would force a special election. But the day the signatures were due, February 25, the recall group quite literally backed away from the window of the city clerk's office and failed to turn them in.
Today Teele says he didn't bother responding because he knew the recall posed no threat to him. "There was no way they could get the [additional] signatures," he contends. "And if they had, the recall would have been thrown out of court on its face. I had lawyers coming to me all the time asking me to challenge this, but I knew if I did, the story in the press would be: 'Art Teele uses his legal connections to wiggle out of the recall on a technicality.'"
Instead of engaging in a media-fed pissing match, Teele sat back and encouraged his network of supporters to wage a rumor campaign against McKnight, Crespo, and the rest, alleging that their motives were suspect. The overall effect was to create a political solidarity the likes of which Arthur Teele, a Republican, has rarely known in his career.
All the black community's heavy hitters rallied around him, from the pastors in the churches (his usual base of power) to political chieftains like former Congresswoman Carrie Meek and former city commissioner and icon Athalie Range. Ironically Meek, Range, and their political goddaughter, county commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler, have criticized Teele in the past and supported rival candidates in his campaigns. (Teele, an attorney, was head of the Urban Mass Transit Administration under Ronald Reagan and served as president of the National Business League, the largest African-American chamber of commerce.) But one and all, they now speak of Teele as the right man for the job. "Arthur Teele is a brilliant person and doing a commendable job," offers Range. "I do think [the recall] might have been about petty jealousies and personal differences."
"The recall was the best thing that ever happened to me politically," admits Teele. Was he -- master strategist and crafty lawyer -- behind it all along? "No," he laughs, "but everyone who knows me, from Washington, D.C., on down, thinks I was."
Teele supporters trotted out well-worn conspiracy theories that the commissioner himself has floated many times over the years. As recently as February 24, when the four other city commissioners who sit with him on the CRA board recommended auditing the troubled agency and removing him as chairman, Teele alleged "there are very powerful forces in this town that want to maintain Overtown the way it is -- that is, broke, poor, without jobs, and without development."
As with all good rumors, these were just plausible enough to seem credible. Both McKnight and Crespo are known to have been interested in running for Teele's commission seat at one time or another. McKnight's status as a well-known grassroots activist in Overtown makes him a natural candidate. Crespo, current president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Black Caucus, has been a perennial candidate for various offices, including a failed attempt in 1993 to win Teele's seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission. He is often critical of and frustrated by the black power structure that continually rebuffs him. Crespo, age 38, believes this is because of his Afro-Cuban heritage, but his critics consider him a bit of a hustler not willing to wait his turn to come up through the ranks. "Watch that Henry Crespo," warns Rev. Richard Dunn II, a Teele supporter. "He's really slippery. The Herald tried to make heroes out of these guys, but they are really lusting so badly for political office."
Crespo, ever the rhetorical bomb-åthrower with his repeated challenges to elected black leaders, enraged many of them when he and a couple of young Turks went to see Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede (formerly of New Times) to plead their case about Teele. DeFede took a pass on the Teele angle, but he did turn out a column critical of local black leadership, quoting Crespo and the others. "That group that went to talk to DeFede is foolish," sputters Barbara Carey-Shuler. "The young man who said we don't have any leadership in the black community, he doesn't know what he's talking about. Take a look at those guys. What have they done in the community? You've got to do something before you jump out there and run for public office."
Crespo became the focal point for a popular theory that the recall movement was really being bankrolled by a shadowy syndicate of Cuban developers who wanted a commissioner less intractable than Art Teele and more sympathetic to their designs on prime inner-city properties. "They've been really killing me with this Cuban-conspiracy thing," Crespo laments. "Look, the Cubans don't want to deal with Art Teele and black politics. This is the strategy of the elite blacks. They try to separate us with talk like this."
Since his days as the powerful chairman of the county commission, Teele has occasionally pitted himself against various development interests. During his failed 1996 run for county mayor against Alex Penelas, for instance, he decried the undue influence of the Latin Builders Association on the wavering Urban Development Boundary in western Miami-Dade. He advocated the Eastward Ho! movement and its goal of redeveloping the inner cities.
As a city commissioner elected in 1997, Teele seized the opportunity to use the CRA to guide long-stalled redevelopment in Overtown. He claims that on the night Xavier Suarez was elected (if only briefly), the mayor brought a contingent of prominent Latin developers to his home, basically letting him know they had plans for his district and they wanted him onboard. "They were very straightforward about it," he remembers, declining to name names.
Today, with the land bonanza in Southwest Miami-Dade nearly at an end, Teele, age 56, believes the inner cities are the next frontier. "Now the redevelopment incentive has become an imperative," he remarks over lunch at the Inter-Continental Hotel downtown. On a piece of notebook paper he draws a rough map of the Overtown and Park West area, noting that land near Biscayne Boulevard sells for almost ten times the going rate in Overtown, just blocks away. "In ten years," he predicts, "high-rise condos overlooking Bicentennial Park, with all the museums, will be worth millions." Teele argues that development pressure to gentrify Overtown and displace its current residents is one of the factors causing his enemies, secretly backed by Anglo and Hispanic businessmen, to emerge. Regardless of the veracity of such a sinister plot, Miami's sordid history in Overtown and the demonstrable rapaciousness of the development industry lend enough credence to Teele's theories that they may as well be true.
The recallers -- especially McKnight, Crespo, and Jones early on -- took a lot of heat from the black political elite for daring to confront one of their own. Carey-Shuler, whose relationship with Teele never fully recovered from their 1990 clash (he ran and beat her out of a county commission seat), is practical about it. She attempted to reason with some of the recallers early on. She told them: "'First of all, I don't think you'll win the issue and if you don't -- oooh, watch out -- he's going to pay you back. Why waste your time on something you're not going to win? It doesn't make sense.' They said, 'We just want to scare the hell out of him.' I said, 'Well, I tried to give you some good advice. You all need to leave him alone and move on.'"
Then Carey-Shuler says what's really on her mind: "You know, we have a hard enough time in office as African Americans without your own trying to get you out."
Behind some of the rhetoric is the fear, fed by the Teele machine, that if he were to be ousted, his replacement could be worse. Remember what happened after Miller Dawkins was indicted (and later convicted) in the Operation Greenpalm bribery scandal? Rev. Richard Dunn was appointed interim commissioner but lost in a special election to Humberto Hernandez, who was later imprisoned for a mortgage scam and voter fraud. For a while Miami was without a black commissioner for the first time in three decades.
Crespo maintains that the negative reaction of black leaders to the recall campaign amounts to good old-fashioned wagon-circling: "When you attack [Teele], you attack all [black elected officials] because we may wake up people in other districts who may want to go after Barbara Carey or Dorrin Rolle. Who the hell wants to be part of a potential uprising?" Not only that, but should Teele be recalled, he'd then be on the loose and could pose a major threat to any other black elected official whose seat he wanted to take. Teele is one of the most successful fundraisers around. Carrie Meek took Teele's political potency seriously enough to orchestrate her retirement from Congress in a way that ensured her seat would go to her son Kendrick. (She unexpectedly declared she wouldn't run for re-election just days before the qualifying deadline.) Teele was Kendrick's most likely competition.
The black-oriented weekly newspaper Miami Times helped fuel speculation that the motives of the recall committee were not legitimate. One editorial headlined "You're a good man, Arthur Teele" had this to say: "The recall effort is a shoddy operation at best, with a smattering of support from a few duplicitous activists who may or may not have the community's best interest at heart." Were McKnight, Crespo, and Jones simply knocking down one king in order to prop up their own political ambitions? Even moderates like Rev. Jimmie Brown had to wonder. "Something just doesn't seem to gel," he mused. "I wonder if there were political ambitions amongst the 'activists.' Were they really trying to do what's best for Overtown or simply looking for 'fifteen minutes' of news coverage?"
The rumors eventually led to the breakup of the recall committee. Soon after the Martin Luther King, Jr., parade in Liberty City, Leroy Jones and associates from Brothers of the Same Mind confronted McKnight and Crespo with the scuttlebutt they'd heard about one or both of them intending to run for Teele's seat. Recall committee members had earlier agreed that none of them would become candidates because it would taint the process. Jones and crew didn't want to risk their credibility on a couple of political hucksters. "To help them run -- that ain't why I got in the recall," says Jones.
McKnight assured them he and Crespo were not candidates. "Irby McKnight isn't interested in being a public servant," he declares to anyone who asks. The Brothers didn't buy it. "I'm not going to criticize the effort or the members," Jones now says. "I still believe in the effort. Teele wasn't helping his constituents."
Crespo's political aspirations vary, depending on when and how he's asked about them. Most often he says he's not interested in being a city commissioner. But when pressed... "If I wanted to run, I could run for the seat and I would guarantee that Irby and those guys would support me," Crespo lets slip one day over raw fish at Sushi Siam. "Just like if Irby would run, then I'd support him." What about the credibility factor? Crespo has a solution. "If you were to be a spin doctor and wanted to change that, you just hold a press conference and bring out a whole lot of people who are urging you to run."
It's this sort of thing that clouded and complicated the stated mission of the recall committee. "This is a ragtag, unlikely group," admits Del Bryan, age 62, a round-faced Jamaican with bifocals who slightly resembles James Earl Jones (he's also been mistaken for the ghost of Dewey Knight, Sr.). "Here I am with an ex-con [Jones] I love, Irby the rebel who shoots off his mouth, and Crespo, who has his own ambitions. I'm the pain in the ass who kept things focused." Bryan heads the condo association at Poinciana Village, the much-delayed first project initiated in Overtown by the CRA in the late Eighties. Bryan bought a condo there in 1993 to be close to his job and because he thought redevelopment would improve the neighborhood. Bryan and his condo association members have fought with Teele over money they believe the CRA still owes them, but Teele thinks they should press the condo developer for it. Bryan believes this is Teele's way of assuring that the project fails and comes back under his control. Bryan says that despite disparate backgrounds and motives for joining the recall, the members shared a genuine frustration at the lack of accountability and responsiveness they observed in Teele. "The conventional wisdom was that we would fail," he allows.
The group also had difficulty funding the campaign. According to filings with the city clerk, as of December 31 the recall committee had raised just $3120. Of that, developer Martin Margulies, who locked horns with Teele while trying to build a youth center in Overtown, gave $1000. A few hundred dollars were contributed by Little Haiti business owners who oppose a 60-acre park proposed by Teele. Most of the rest of the money came out of recall members' pockets. The oddest contribution, though, had to be the $20 the group received from former commissioner and convicted felon Miller Dawkins. Crespo claims that many more people expressed an interest in supporting the recall but didn't want their names to show up in the campaign reports for fear of provoking the famously certain retribution of Teele. "There's a lot of people who want him out, but they want to throw the rock and hide the hand," he shrugs.
Marvin Dunn, a Florida International University professor and recognized historian of black Miami, says the recall effort ultimately failed because its scope was too limited to attract broad support -- and because it didn't offer a viable alternative to Art Teele. In addition, he doesn't see the recall as the beginning of a rebirth of local black activism. "Art, he's not been perfect in office," Dunn acknowledges. "He's hard to get hold of, et cetera. People may not be exactly happy with him, but he's done nothing so egregious as to cause a huge outcry. It will take far more than the issue of the parking lots to do that."
There are plenty of folks in Teele's district who watched the recall effort progress and applauded its overt intentions to demand accountability, even if they assumed there were also hidden motives. But on February 25 the group lost a great deal of credibility when it failed to turn over the petition signatures to the city clerk at the appointed hour, thus negating months of work and the legitimate complaints of the voters who had signed. The manner in which this occurred only served to heighten the sense that secret intentions had finally overtaken noble ones.
What happened is this: About a half-hour before the clerk's office was to close, McKnight, Crespo, and two others showed up at city hall lugging a large cardboard box stuffed with petitions. They walked right up to the window and waited there for city clerk Priscilla Thompson to come over and accept the petitions. Suddenly McKnight announced they weren't turning in the petitions after all.
For several long minutes an odd tableau unfolded, with Crespo and McKnight shifting uncomfortably and shooting looks at each other that seemed to say: "Is this what we really want to do?" They finally decided to claim victory by saying that the recall effort had resulted in reforms at the CRA and an all-around less arrogant, more responsive Commissioner Art Teele. They flatly denied the obvious question -- that either a payoff or insurmountable pressure encouraged them to back off. Did they not get the signatures? No, they replied uneasily. Plenty of signatures. "I'm satisfied," McKnight said. "And to tell the truth, we don't have the money to mount an election against him anyway."
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At this point, elsewhere in the city, our villain-hero, Arthur Teele, had already fed the victory story to the Miami Times. Teele says he was told by one of the recall members (he won't reveal who) that they didn't think they had sufficient signatures, and that's why they didn't turn them in. (A couple of recall members later admitted as much to New Times, but characterized their clumsy, duplicitous handling of the problem as a "strategic retreat.")
New Times took a look at several pages of the petition, left behind as the recall crew fled city hall into the late afternoon. It was quickly clear that at least some of the people who signed it don't live in District 5, or even within Miami city limits. At least one signer hailed from Miramar -- in Broward County.
For his part, Teele says it's not over. He plans to go after the shady characters he claims were behind the whole thing. "I'm not going to worry about these guys," he says, a Cheshire cat grin on his face, referring to McKnight, Crespo, and the others. "I'm going to find out who's really behind it and make sure they can never do it again -- and their grandchildren can never do it again."
And so it goes in our fair city.