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5466: Haitian Americans step up voter education efforts (fwd)
Published Monday, November 6, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Haitian Americans step up voter education efforts
BY DANIEL A. GRECH
Two years ago, 96 voters in the district that includes Little Haiti
punched the names of both candidates for state representative,
nullifying their votes. In a Democratic primary with 6,751 ballots cast,
Phillip J. Brutus, a Haitian American, lost to incumbent Beryl
Roberts-Burke by just 51 votes. ``Dozens of those lost votes were
first-time Haitian-American voters,'' said Jacques Despinosse, president
of the Haitian American Democratic Club. ``They would tell me, `I vote
for Brutus, but I vote for lady too because she speaks so
nice.' '' Despinosse and other Haitian-American leaders vowed that
would never happen again. This election season, they have renewed
citizenship and voter registration efforts, held seminars in churches on
the voting process, and bombarded Creole-language radio to get out the
vote. The Haitian community has also pushed the county to make polls
friendlier to new voters. This year, the county added Creole-language
ballots and signs in 60 precincts with large Haitian-American
populations. And the county stepped up efforts to recruit
Creole-speaking poll workers. Anticipation of Tuesday's election in
Little Haiti has grown to a fever pitch. Brutus is the only
Haitian-American candidate running, and as a Democrat in heavily
Democratic District 108, he is the heavy favorite in a race against a
Republican and an independent to inherit term-limited Roberts-Burke's
seat. On Tuesday, two vans equipped with loudspeakers will shuttle
Little Haiti voters to the polls -- and one of Miami's newest immigrant
communities stands ready to flex its political muscle as never before.
OPENING THE DOOR
``Little by little,'' Despinosse said. ``We're opening the door little
by little.' Poll watchers say voter education initiatives are a
necessary part of the growing pains of a new immigrant community.
``You saw this same thing in the '70s and '80s when the Hispanic
community took to the voting process,'' said David Leahy, supervisor of
county elections. At Despinosse's invitation, Leahy took part in a
first-time voters seminar at a Little Haiti church with voting machines
and demonstration ballots. ``I saw the excitement of the process in
their eyes,'' Leahy said. ``It feels good to be part of that, to
franchise these people.'' Voter education is just the latest step in a
decades-long emergence -- a process that starts with citizenship.
In September 1982, Despinosse and U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper began a radio
program called Radio Citizen, urging Haitians to naturalize. Some
Haitian Americans who planned to return to Haiti resisted.
``I was called the worst animal on earth, an Uncle Tom. I was accused
of being a spy,'' Despinosse recalled. ``Now, 20 years later, you have a
community with a nice voting bloc.''
The turning point came in the mid-90s, when many Haitian Americans
became tired of waiting for the political crisis back home to be
resolved. In 1996 alone, 24,556 Haitians were naturalized in Florida.
``Many people found it impossible to live in Haiti, so they finally
made up their minds to become a citizen and register to vote,''
Despinosse said. Tougher welfare and immigration laws stirred the pot of
political discontent and raised the stakes of political power.
``Haitians nationwide are getting organized,'' said Rudolphe Moise, a
Miami physician, lawyer and a board member of the D.C.-based National
Organization for the Advancement of Haitians. In recent years, the South
Florida Haitian community, concentrated in areas like Little Haiti, has
seen local political gains that outstrip those of more established --
and scattered -- communities in New York, Chicago and Atlanta.
Ossmann Desir was elected to the North Miami city council, and El
Portal became the nation's first municipality with a Haitian-American
majority on its city council.
SETTING THE TONE
``Miami sets the tone,'' Despinosse said. And while most Haitian
Americans are Democrats, the community has even seen
the emergence of prominent Republicans like Joe Celestin, who narrowly
lost a runoff election for North Miami mayor. ``The community has
realized that one party is not going to fulfill our needs,'' said
Jean R. Philippeaux, a Haitian television producer who owns the studio
Island Magazine TV. ``It shows political savvy to be placed within both
parties, so we will be listened to by any administration.''
Still, efforts to get out the vote cross party lines. Moise, a
prominent Democrat, put up $25,000 of his own money to hold a
nonpartisan registration drive at the Miami Arena on Aug. 10. That day,
300 Haitian Americans registered, and hundreds more learned how to vote.
``I want the Haitian-American community to move ahead, regardless of
party affiliation,'' Moise said. If he wins Tuesday, Brutus is poised to
make history as Florida's first Haitian-American legislator and the
second in the country. Brutus himself has directed $2,500 of his $70,000
campaign coffers to television ads with step-by-step instructions in
Creole on how to vote. ``The irony is that Brutus would already have
been elected if not for those 96 mistakes in the '98 election,''
But punching both ballots was just one problem. After the '98 election,
voters complained on Creole-language radio that they'd been turned away
from the polls or their candidate wasn't on the ballot. And there
weren't enough Creole-speaking poll workers to tell new voters they were
at the wrong precinct or their favorite candidate was running in another
district. In Haiti, candidates are identified by symbols like a pig, a
cow, a palm tree. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a cockfighter.
People vote by pressing their thumb on their candidate's symbol.
In America, the process of voting is quite a bit more complicated.
``Some people don't know how to read or write, so they punch the wrong
thing,'' Philippeaux said. ``I don't think we should be ashamed of that.
The great thing about this country is it's never too late to learn.''