The Teele Deal

Three months ago Rev. H.C. Wilkes, presiding elder of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, decided there was just one man who could represent the black community on the Miami City Commission -- Art Teele, the erstwhile chairman of the Dade County Commission. There were a few small problems, however. First, most black politicians in the area were already rallying around a political neophyte by the name of Pierre Rutledge. Leading the charge for Rutledge were County Commissioner Barbara Carey and her political godmother, former Miami city commissioner Athalie Range. Carey's and Range's disdain for Teele is legendary and dates back to 1990, when Teele beat Carey for a seat on the Dade County Commission. Carey regained that seat only last year when Teele vacated it to run unsuccessfully for county mayor.

Wilkes knew that if either Carey or Range prematurely discovered his effort to recruit Teele, there would be political hell to pay. "These were private conversations," Wilkes says of his closed-door meetings with Teele and many of Miami's other black pastors. "We had to keep it quiet. We already knew who the heavy hitters were supporting and we knew that they would oppose us and do everything they could to keep us from getting the one man who could really help the African-American people."

But there was another problem. According to Wilkes, Teele wasn't interested in running. "He was reluctant," Wilkes says. "He felt let down after the county's strong mayor race. He was discouraged by that. But we met with him and made clear the feelings of the community. We felt like we needed someone with experience to represent the African-American community, and someone who would have the know-how to get things done."

"The ministers came to me," Teele recalls, "and basically said to me in very plain terms that they expected me to run. They said that they had supported me in the past when I needed their help, and now they felt that this was such a dangerous time for the black community that I had to support them by running."

Two weeks ago, on election night, Rev. J.C. Wise of the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church echoed that view, comparing Teele to Moses and claiming that he was elected to help deliver black Miami from disaster. "Thank you for helping us in this crisis," he told Teele.

"I certainly don't see myself as a Moses, and I'm not comfortable with that characterization," Teele would say later in an interview. "But what it does show is that there is a sense of doom that is pervasive throughout Miami's black working-class communities."

"It was the people who wanted Art," Wilkes says. "They wanted a more charismatic figure."

Since Teele's loss to Alex Penelas in the mayor's race, the black community has been without a standard-bearer. No one in the past year has been able to fill the vacuum. During that same time, blacks throughout the county watched warily as Penelas assumed the position of strong mayor, while the county commission -- with four of its thirteen seats filled by blacks -- languished miserably as it tried to sort out its place in this new form of government. In the City of Miami, long-time commissioner Miller Dawkins went to prison after his conviction on federal corruption charges. His replacement, Rev. Richard Dunn, lost a special election earlier this year to Humberto Hernandez, leaving the commission without any black representation.

"It just seems that blacks are the forgotten voice," says Wilkes. "And it is leaving feelings of frustration and helplessness and hopelessness. I think Art is one of the people who will be able to cross that void and demand the respect of the people in power. He is one of the most polished politicians in the state of Florida, and he knows how to get things done."

Implicit in Wilkes's statement is the idea that the current batch of black politicians has not been able to get things done, a failing that also explains why so many opposed Teele. "These politicians feel threatened by Art," Wilkes says, "because they know he can build a power base." And Teele's strength has little to do with the position he now holds -- if the county commission were the major leagues, then Teele would be the political equivalent of Double-A. His district as city commissioner is vastly smaller than the one he represented as county commissioner. As chairman of the county commission he held considerable sway over how that body allocated more than four billion dollars each year. Now he is a commissioner in cash-strapped Miami, whose annual budget is less than $300 million.

But Teele understands the bully pulpit better than anyone, as was evident on election night. He renewed his pledge to make the redevelopment of Overtown his highest priority. "We must not let Overtown die," he exhorted. "Overtown must be restored. It must be brought back to life. We are going to make Overtown great once again. And we have a message for those who have taken part in the raping and the pillaging and plundering of Overtown in the past: Get your hands off Overtown! We will raise an army. After tonight we are looking for volunteers in Art's Army. We will restore Overtown and we will take no prisoners." The small crowd roared its approval.

Present at Teele's victory party were county commissioners Dennis Moss and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. "He's going to be a strong city commissioner," Moss smiled. "That's just part of his character." Teele noted that Moss was the only politician in the county willing to host a fundraiser for him. Teele raised approximately $100,000, with most of it coming in the final two weeks thanks to the support of labor unions. Rutledge raised slightly more than half that amount.

"I'm glad to have Art back. It's been no fun by myself," said Diaz de la Portilla, referring to his role as an outspoken critic of Penelas.

Indeed, given the events of the past two weeks, no one is a bigger loser than the county mayor. Penelas backed Herman Echeverria over Raul Martinez in the Hialeah mayor's race. Martinez won. Penelas endorsed David Pearlson over Neisen Kasdin in the Miami Beach mayor's race. Kasdin won. Although he made no formal endorsements in the Miami races, Penelas and his supporters were clearly pulling for Rutledge over Teele, as well as for incumbent Mayor Joe Carollo over the highly volatile and unpredictable Xavier Suarez. Both Teele and Suarez are back in office.

It's fair to say the Penelas honeymoon is over.
Teele appears to relish the fact that he easily won this race in spite of the endorsements given to Rutledge. "We didn't have all of the luminaries with us," he laughingly told his supporters, "and that is a burden we are free of."

In addition to Carey and Range, Rutledge was also heavily backed by Congresswoman Carrie Meek and her son, State Rep. Kendrick Meek. Their support of Rutledge over Teele may have more to do with the future than the present: Teele had already declared that he has no interest in running for a second term on the Miami City Commission, which would leave him looking for a new opportunity in the next three to four years. Meek is expected to serve perhaps one more term in Congress before retiring, and she has been laying the groundwork for her son to run in her place. Teele, a Republican, could threaten that transition. "I'm not interested, right now, in Congress," Teele says. "But I am interested in rebuilding Overtown."

And he's not going to be shy about how he conducts business. An hour after his November 4 victory party wound down at a restaurant on NW Seventh Avenue, and with his supporters' chants of "Art Teele's back!" still ringing in his head, the enigmatic Teele sat in the lounge of the 1800 Club, sipping a tall vodka-cranberry juice cocktail, relishing his electoral rebirth.

"After I lost the mayor's race, I thought to myself that I did my time and now I've got to move on to other things," he said. A lawyer, Teele concentrated on trying to develop business opportunities in Latin America. He also spent a substantial amount of time in Washington, D.C. "For eleven months I worked at not paying close attention to any of the issues going on in the county," he said. "I did not read a county commission agenda in a year. I did not watch a county commission meeting until the budget hearings this fall. I got out of everybody's way. But now I'm back, and this is the best job I could possibly have. This is where I can get immediate results. I don't have to have the big picture. I don't want to have the big picture."

Smiling broadly, he added, "You don't know how good it feels not to owe a single person.