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5468: New legislator credits a lifetime of determination (fwd)

From: nozier@tradewind.net

Published Thursday, November 9, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 New legislator credits a lifetime of determination

 Phillip J. Brutus, whose landslide victory Tuesday made him the first
 Haitian-American legislator in Florida and just the second in the
country, glimpsed his future one night as he emptied a trash can at an
upscale Boston law firm. A senior partner was quizzing junior lawyers on
the syntax of an an obscure Latin law term. Brutus, then 24, was a
part-time janitor working his way through the criminal justice and
forensics program at the University of Massachusetts. ``So I stood up
and told the senior partner the meaning of the word and its Latin
 root,'' said Brutus, who had studied Latin three years in his native
Port-au-Prince before his family sent him at 14 to study in Brooklyn.
 ``The junior members looked at me with shock or hatred, even some
amazement.I felt so proud.' Brutus paused for a moment.


 ``Here you have these white guys in bow-ties sitting around a big,
brown, mahogany table, and I'm cleaning their trash. It was then that I
said to myself, `I should be a lawyer.'  Four years later, Brutus,
working nights as a cab driver, graduated from Suffolk University Law
School. Now Brutus, 42, is a legislator. The road to Tallahassee was not
smooth. Brutus fought off a poverty so desperate in Brooklyn that he had
to jump the subway turnstile to get to Manhattan Community College
because he couldn't afford the 35-cent tokens. He battled
 immigration laws that barred him from work, and a glass ceiling because
of the color of his skin. ``I had to literally fight,'' Brutus said
during a recent interview in the book-lined conference room of his North
Miami law office. ``If I'd ever stopped, I would never have become a
lawyer, never be where I am today.'' On Tuesday, he won 81.7 percent of
the vote in a majority Democratic district with large Haitian-American,
African-American and gay populations. The closest challenger in the
general election, African-American Republican Reggie Thompson, got just
a fifth of Brutus' count.


 Phillip Brutus had narrowly lost the seat two years ago to incumbent
Democrat Beryl Roberts-Burke, who was forced out of this election by
term limits. ``This is a moment of real pride in the community, and not
just because it's history-making. This victory was not handed to us --
it was deserved,'' said Jean R. Philippeaux, a Haitian TV producer who
owns the studio Island Magazine TV. In a Miami Haitian-American
community often divided against itself, among a people weaned on
politics in a country where simply voting can cost your life,
 Brutus' support crossed class and party lines. Brutus raised $72,276
for his campaign, and most of the money came in $500
 and $250 increments from political action committees and Haitian
professionals. But more than a third of his 700 donations were less than
$10 in cash, raised at soccer games and other community gatherings.
``The idea wasn't to raise money, but to franchise these people,''
Brutus said. ``Even a dollar buys three stamps.''
 ``His support in this community is overwhelming,'' Philippeaux said.
``He has had people from all walks of life volunteering and donating
small amounts and organizing fundraisers.' But there are concerns about
how the first-time legislator will fare among seasoned politicians in


 Brutus has a temper, as evidenced by a pointed letter he sent Thompson
 threatening a defamation lawsuit the day after his opponent made
questionable accusations in the newspaper. Brutus also ran a brutal
campaign in '98 against Roberts-Burke, and some said his haughty
demeanor contributed to his narrow defeat. The Haitian community was so
concerned that after Brutus reopened his campaign in October 1999, a
panel of prominent Haitians grilled him about his demeanor on
Creole-language television. ``Brutus said he would try to mellow, to
change his tune,'' Philippeaux said. ``But his commanding voice is a
habit of the courtroom, and he can't really change that.'' Those who
know Brutus best say he has changed since the 1998 race. This
 election, he ignored his challengers and focused on a message of
economic development. He dropped the lawsuit threat, saying he didn't
want to give Thompson extra publicity. ``Brutus has become more patient,
more resilient. He takes time now to listen,' wife and law partner Yolly
Roberson said. ``When he sees something that's not right, he'll
sacrifice everything. Too much.'' Instead of practicing in more
lucrative areas of law, Brutus' specialties include employment
discrimination and immigration, areas geared toward the
 downtrodden.  So when Brutus talked about his aspiration as a senior in
college to one day have his own mahogany conference table, he sat at a
table of brown formica with its edge chipped. ``It's close enough,''
Brutus laughed. ``At least I have the books.''