Want to Win an Election in South Miami? It's All About the Signs

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Hey everybody,

If you’re like me, then you’re getting sick of trying to figure out all this primary stuff –words like “caucus” make my head hurt and I have a deep phobia about colored maps.

I long for the simpler, stupider realm of small-town politics, where the success or failure of a candidate is determined wholly by the number of signs bearing his name.

To recuperate from all the national hee-haw, I drove out to South Miami, where a happy local election in front of City Hall was well under way.

Calvin Godfrey

Let me say that Horace Feliu, the incumbent mayor was the clear winner today – and not because he had gotten more than three hundred people to cast absentee ballots before election day, either. Feliu won, in my mind, when someone from his campaign crossed the street and jammed an election sign into the handle of this New Times box.

We don’t give endorsements people. But our boxes are ripe for the claiming.

Standing along the street in front of City Hall, a bored clan of poor people stood waving signs for incumbent commissioner Marie Birts-Cooper and Mayor Feliu. Most of them had been hired to do it.

Calvin Godfrey

This woman lives in Cutler Bay and had no idea who Marie Birts-Cooper is. She “volunteered” to hold up her name, she said, before admitting to being paid.

“I’m pushing for this to happen every four years instead of every two,” Birts Cooper said. “This just brings out the worst in people.”

Birts-Cooper, who owns a number of American-flag themed jackets, said she hadn’t paid anyone to hold up her signs. She couldn’t afford it. Everyone present on election day was just a friendly volunteer.

Calvin Godfrey

One such friendly volunteer, a slumped old man named Juan had been left behind in the rain yesterday. Juan, who swore he was cousins with Geraldo Rivera, would not give his name or permit his picture being taken. “I don’t need these people hating me,” he said.

He had earned as much as $220 sign-holding at elections in Broward. “But this motherfucker only pays a buck thirty,” Juan grumbled, referring to the mayor.

Juan described himself as a 7th degree black belt who patrolled the crack-addled streets of Coconut grove. Juan’s martial skills seemed doubtful as he stooped idly against a Mayor Feliu sign and hoped out loud to top the $60 he received yesterday, shortly before being abandoned.

Juan got a ride home from a Dutch nurse named Yvonne Beckmen who was sitting in front of city hall attaching heart stickers to her poorly produced hand fliers. “For Valentine’s Day,” she said.

Calvin Godfrey

She’s running against Birts-Cooper and this guy, Brian Beasly. Beasly is against putting tall buildings in South Miami’s poor black neighborhoods. Which makes him very unpopular with a lot of important people in that part of town.

But he doesn’t seem to mind. Beasly could hardly contain his enthusiasm for “unifying the community.” As a child, he lived in a one-room apartment outside of Hialeah with his four siblings, he explained. Today, he’s a realtor with a big house in South Miami. “I want the kids to know that they can do it too,” Beasly said swooping in to shake the hands of arriving old people like a gregarious vulture. The woman responded by pointing out that he had put on quite a bit of weight. “You can’t be up there representin’ all thick,” she cried. Beasly said he would try to lose the weight.

He had a fair number of signs.

Calvin Godfrey

This lady here is Valerie Newman. Valerie will definitely lose. She didn’t spend any money on the campaign and she seemed to basically have two signs. She has long accused the current city administration of dirty-dealings with the local newspaper and crooked development scheming.

“If someone is going to vote for me because they see my name on a sign – I don’t really want their vote,” she sighed. “I want them to vote for me because they’re informed on the issues.”

What a loser.

Calvin Godfrey

Aside from the sweet nectar of signs, old people provide the essence of democracy. Indeed, they were being bussed in to the polls like cattle in a variety of “volunteer” cars and vans. Here’s Feliu’s wife preparing a van for a load of old people. She rode shotgun.

Feliu, pictured here with his neighbor, said the day had gone well. “I’m haven’t been arrested and thrown in jail,” he said laughing. “So it’s a good day.” (Last year, he was arrested—on unsubstantiated charges of election fraud).

Calvin Godfrey

The incumbent added that people complaining about hired drivers and sign-holders were just bitter that they didn’t have any volunteers or money to pay for such things.

Fuck ‘em. First you get the signs. Then you get the drivers. Then you get the power.

One sore-ass loser was this nice lady in pink. Her name is Velma Palmer and she hollered about people ripping up her signs and spreading rumors that she told police to arrest black people for playing their music too loud.

A couple weeks ago, Palmer got herself in hot water for attempting to fire the City Manager whom she says is incompetent and absent more times than present during city business.

“This is a vicious place,” she shuddered, as rain began pouring down.

Calvin Godfrey

Standing next to her in the picture is Walter Harris, a local wedding photographer who later strapped a small white dog to his bosom and advised people to vote for all the V’s: “Yvonne, Velma, Valerie.”

When the raining started, we split.

Harris had started in town as a tax attorney. But he quit because he kept advising his clients not to sue each other. He knew suing people didn’t make you happy.

So he became a wedding photographer, instead. He took me by his defunct office and showed me a massive collage that he was trying to put up in a local deli.

Harris had cut up 25,000 photographs he’d taken of people of all different races and ages and backgrounds loving each other and shaking hands. The reams of pictures once filled the four walls of an entire room in his office – so that thousands of smiling faces stared in at you. “All of these pictures, so full of energy,” he said. One section of the massive collage lay sprawled out of the floor of his empty South Miami studio.

Harris had seen everyone in town at their absolute best and seemed to like them all. He was good at getting people to jump into fountains in expensive rented clothing and hoped to make the experiences outrageous, so people would remember them better.

They’d been rolled up, like posters, with various bits and clips bent and lying on the floor.

“Aren’t you worried they’ll get damaged?” I asked.

“It’s a collage,” he answered. “You can’t damage it. A picture falls off, you just add another one. It has a life of its own.”

Too bad elections aren’t more like weddings we both agreed. -- Calvin Godfrey

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