Teele’s (Or)Deal

With all due respect, Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele was so mad at a July 9 meeting that he just barely caught himself from swearing into the public record. "Something has gone dreadfully wrong in this city," he declared from the dais. "And you know old habits are hard to break. This is the most racist fuc -- frickin' town that I've ever lived in, that I've ever visited. There is a total conspiracy against black businesses in this town." During an impromptu but stirring fifteen-minute speech he circled back to his leitmotif several times. "This town does not want to see black people in business," he charged.

The 56-year-old District Five commissioner was reacting to the plight of a Jamaican-American woman who ran a T-shirt store at Bayside Marketplace downtown. She had just alleged that Rouse Miami, the company that owns the mall, had evicted her because she is black. "African-Americans are having a very tough time," Teele informed. "Cubans are doing very well in this community, thank you very much, and nobody begrudges them. I certainly don't. But the fact of the matter is that what is going on at Bayside is no different from what is going on all over this city."

As usual Teele's powerful oratory had some basis in reality. After 40 years of so-called desegregation, the Overtown and Liberty City sections of the commissioner's black-majority district are still deprived, isolated ghettos. But there was more than a little hyperbole, even paradox, in Teele's words. As seasoned city hall observers can attest, his fiery outbursts regarding one matter can be related to quite another.

In this instance that other had popped up just recently. Commissioners Johnny Winton and Joe Sanchez had started to publicly question the integrity of Teele's reign as chairman of the board of Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), whose very mission was to revive black businesses in the economically distressed zone encompassing Overtown and downtown's deteriorated northern fringe. Triggering the questioning was an auditor's report that had found serious flaws in the CRA's record-keeping and financial reporting. Teele reacted angrily, suggesting that a certain Cuban-Anglo collusion first waged against him four years ago was alive and well. Now, two weeks later, Teele had broadened the eerie thesis. "There is a quiet conspiracy to keep black people out of business," he reiterated, and after five more minutes of diatribe fell silent.

Winton and Sanchez had listened impatiently and were not buying it. It didn't help Teele's logic that the lawyer in charge of evicting the Bayside shopkeeper was a successful black woman, or that George Knox, one of the county's most prominent attorneys, who also is black, was on hand to mediate.

And of course Teele is quite prosperous himself. From humble beginnings in Arkansas, he became a decorated Vietnam War vet, a Florida State law school graduate, head of the Urban Mass Transit Administration under Ronald Reagan, and president of the National Business League, the largest African-American chamber of commerce.

In 1996 Teele was able to raise $1.2 million in an unsuccessful race against Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas. After winning his seat on the city commission he disclosed a net worth of $2,058,365, most of which he accumulated as president of two business consulting companies. (The figure would have been higher if not for the approximately $1.2 million in debts reported on that disclosure form, including a $350,000 bill from the IRS.) On top of it all he is chairman of the CRA, an agency entrusted with millions of dollars of tax revenue, over which he has presided like a CEO. Certainly this town had not kept him down.

Teele's militant flareups fall increasingly on deaf ears even in his own district. He's had five years as a Miami commissioner and CRA chairman to help lift up black businesses, create affordable housing, and otherwise end blight and economic distress. Key constituents in Overtown and Liberty City believe he has failed to carry out the mission, while the CRA spends millions of dollars for consultants' fees, staff salaries, and other activities that have yet to transform the zone. "He has a good heart," observes Bob Tyler, a construction contractor who left the CRA in early 2001 after a year there. "But the general consensus is that he really doesn't want to get it done, that it's just a smoke screen." Ratcheting up the pressure on Teele is a group of restless real estate investors bent on reviving pieces of the CRA dead zone with lounges, cafés, lofts, and galleries like those in the fabled Manhattan districts of SoHo, Tribeca, and Chelsea.

And now there was this irksome audit. Teele, the big D.C. fish in a mid-size municipal pond, the most powerful, elegant member of the Miami Commission, was in mid-crisis.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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