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Melba Pearson (left) is challenging her former boss, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Melba Pearson (left) is challenging her former boss, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

State Attorney Race Divides Miami's Black Clergy

With mere days left in the race for Miami-Dade state attorney, it's crunch time for incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle and her progressive challenger, Melba Pearson.

In a normal year, the candidates would be making the rounds, appearing in front of civic groups, unions, and religious communities ahead of the August 18 election. In the past, the campaign trail has included stops for Sunday services at Miami's African-American churches, which have traditionally represented an important voting bloc.

And that might prove crucial in this election: Rundle hasn't faced a challenger since 2012, when she beat Rod Vereen, a defense lawyer, in the Democratic primary. Like Vereen, Pearson is Black.

But 2020 is no normal year.

With most church services continuing to take place remotely because of the coronavirus, Rundle and Pearson have had to find other ways to connect with Black voters, making their case on radio programs and Zoom conferences.

That approach has made the candidates more accessible to a larger audience, says community activist and 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell, who notes that his recent Facebook Live interviews with Rundle and Pearson drew a combined 26,000 views.

"Because of the coronavirus, everybody's locked on to social media," Campbell tells New Times. "Now that the information is available for everyone to make their own decision, they're sitting there listening to the forums and listening to the candidates. They're making an educated decision."

That accessibility has exposed what Campbell and others see as clear divisions among Miami's most prominent African-American leaders. Although Rundle has historically received strong support from Black voters throughout her 27-year tenure, a number of community leaders have publicly backed Pearson, a former assistant state attorney in Rundle's office and past president of the National Black Prosecutors Association.

Nowhere has that division been more noticeable than within Miami's Black clergy. On a recent recording of The Chief Jimmy Brown Show, a radio program that airs on the gospel station WMBM-AM (1490), host Eric Pettus invited the candidates to appear before a group of local pastors.

Perhaps because Rundle had a conflict and could not attend, some participants spoke freely of their disappointment in her leadership as state attorney.

"If you elect a clown, you're gonna get a circus," said the Rev. Jimmie Williams, a pastor at St. James AME in Liberty City. "We have to put our heads together to see how we can… get Rundle out of office."

"Black people, wake up, wake up," added the Rev. Nathaniel Wilcox, an assistant pastor at the Apostolic Revival Center, another church in Liberty City. "We gotta point you out and let you know who is really supporting Black lives, who is really supporting the needs of people in our Black community, and it's not Katherine Fernandez Rundle."

A key criticism of Rundle among dissenters is her lack of prosecution of officers accused of using excessive force against civilians. In her nearly three decades in office, she has never charged a police officer for an on-duty killing. (Rundle points out that only one case — against the cop who shot drummer Corey Jones in Palm Beach Gardens in 2015 — has led to a conviction by any Florida prosecutor's office in that time.)

Wilcox points to the case of Darren Rainey, a prison inmate who died after state correctional officers locked him in a scalding-hot shower, as one example of Rundle's failure to act. In 2017, the state attorney declined to press charges against the officers, citing an autopsy report that ruled the death was accidental — a determination that has been questioned by other experts.

"As a Black man, as a Black African-American minister, to me, that's very hurtful when people can be killed and there's no resolution to it," Wilcox tells New Times. "So shame on those individuals who go with [Rundle] because she's a nice person and she's a kind person. It's not about that. It's about Katherine Rundle doing her job, and in all this time she has not been doing her job."

In recent weeks, Wilcox and other critics of Rundle have raised questions about prominent clergy members who continue to support her. In mid-June, for example, several Black ministers marched alongside Rundle at a religious demonstration protesting the death of George Floyd.

Campbell says the church leaders who did so came across as tone-deaf.

"If you thought for one minute that injustices are happening in Miami, you are marching with a lady that has not arrested a police officer for 27 years" for an on-duty killing, he says.

The Rev. Carl Johnson, a pastor at the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church, is a longtime supporter of Rundle who chipped in $1,000 to her re-election campaign. He tells New Times he accepts the state attorney's explanation of how the law must be applied in cases where officers are investigated.

"You can't prosecute because of assumptions; she says you have to prosecute something that shows facts according to the law," he says.

Johnson says he continues to support Rundle because he sees her as an experienced leader who takes time to listen to community concerns and to draft solutions with stakeholders.

"She has always been open for ways to correct the perpetrator who may commit crimes without being punitive," he says.

Some clergy members speculated on The Chief Jimmy Brown Show that Rundle has offered financial support to certain Black churches, organizations, and leaders, a theory that has gained traction amid a recent investigation by WLRN.

Reporter Daniel Rivero found that since 2009, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has, as part of plea negotiations, asked some defendants to contribute to a charitable fund that has provided grant funding to groups with ties to Rundle. (A spreadsheet published by WLRN shows grants were given to only one church, Trinity Miami, which is led by pastors Rich and Robyn Wilkerson, who are white.)

Pearson says she grew leery of the charitable fund during her time as a prosecutor and stopped tacking on the donations as a sentencing condition. But she believes the lack of transparency has led to suspicions about the program.

"It's the process that's problematic," she says. "The question is, are some of these organizations that received grant money having to apply for it? Was there some other quid pro quo?"

Although Johnson's church has partnered with the State Attorney's Office for expungement workshops and other events over the years, he says neither he nor the church has financially benefited from his support for Rundle.

"Absolutely not, with exclamation marks seven times on top of it," he says. "Ms. Rundle has never given me any finances since she's been in the State Attorney's Office."

Johnson also made clear that his support of Rundle is no reflection of his feelings about Pearson.

"Melba is a very smart, intelligent lady," he says. "I have nothing against her — in fact, I highly esteem her wisdom and her heart to want to aspire to be what she wants to be."

A spokesperson for Rundle's campaign says the state attorney "has the continued support of voters across all demographics, including Black voters."

"State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle continues to have the support of Black clergy and community leaders because of her experience and deep-rooted commitment to the community," the campaign asserted in a statement.

Pearson tells New Times that as a political newcomer, she has found it challenging to connect with certain Black community leaders who have longstanding ties to Rundle.

"It's definitely frustrating from the standpoint that so many people directly impacted by the policies and failures that have happened on my opponent's watch don't want to come out front and advocate for the community," Pearson says. "I can't focus on who's not there — I'm focused on what's right for people of Miami-Dade County. It's up to you to decide what side of history you want to be on."

Like Pearson, Campbell sees this year's race for state attorney as a historic election, and one that he believes reveals character just as much as political allegiance.

"The question becomes, in the African-American community, whether it's the lawyers or the pastors or anyone supporting Kathy, what kind of person are you?" says Campbell, who has endorsed Pearson.

Others see the split within the community as an even stronger ideological divide: In a recent op-ed for the Miami Times, Miami attorney Reggie Clyne went as far as to equate Black supporters of Rundle with "house slaves."

"The established Black lawyers are all supporting her. The Black Pastors are supporting her. The Black Bar Associations are supporting her," Clyne wrote. "She is a safe bet and if you are a criminal defense attorney and want to do deals for your clients, then you want to be on her good side. The establishment has determined that challenging her is probably not a good idea."

Regardless of how things shake out on election day, Campbell says, the heated race has been a good thing for Black Miamians.

"The community, when it comes to the African-American leaders, it's really torn apart, but then it's torn apart for a good reason because the people are getting to see who are actually your leaders," he says. "The Black community is in a win-win situation because our so-called leaders have been exposed, and Kathy is on notice now."

Should Rundle win again, Campbell says, "She would have to govern totally differently than she's been governing because there's a new set of leaders in the community."

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