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7781: North Miami politics (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Diversity bringing change to North Miami politics

By Madeline Baró Diaz
Miami Bureau
Posted May 6 2001

North Miami · This city could become the largest in South Florida with a 
majority Haitian-American city council after Tuesday's election.

One of the leading candidates for mayor is Haitian-American, as are three of 
the four candidates vying for an open council seat. If elected, they would 
join another Haitian-American already on the five-member council.

"I think it would be historic for the Haitian-American community," said 
Ossmann Desir, who made history himself when he became the first 
Haitian-born councilman in North Miami. "It is important for people to 
understand that the demographics of the city of North Miami have changed."

That change hasn't been easy. During the 1999 election in which Desir ran, 
along with Joe Celestin, the city's first Haitian-American mayoral 
candidate, ethnic tensions came to a boil.

The conflicts weren't just between black and white residents, but also 
between African-Americans and Haitian-Americans. Celestin lost in a close 
runoff against white candidate Frank Wolland.

"It was a totally new group, a new culture, coming into the arena," Celestin 
said. "The city had never seen a black [mayoral] candidate before."

Almost 5,000 people, many of them Haitian-American, voted in the mayoral 
election, and more than 6,000 people turned out for the runoff. North Miami 
Councilman Scott Galvin said the city's Haitian-American electorate had not 
been taken seriously until that point.

"It wasn't until they showed up in force at the ballot box in an election 
that our powers that be said, `Oh! They're here,'" Galvin said. "Joe's 
candidacy electrified the community, and he almost won the election."

In the current election, Celestin is a leading candidate for mayor, and 
three of the four candidates for the District 3 seat -- Jacques Despinosse, 
Alix Desulme and Victor Pierre-Louis -- are Haitian-Americans.

Even if all the Haitian-American candidates lose, the racial makeup of the 
traditionally white council will change. The other strong candidate for 
mayor is Arthur "Duke" Sorey, who in 1995 became the first black person 
elected to the City Council but lost to Desir in 1999. The fourth candidate 
in the District 3 race is Tyrone Hill, who is African-American.

Two white candidates are vying for another open council seat and a third 
white candidate, John Stembridge, is running for mayor.

Desir blames some of the conflicts of two years ago on a small group of 
people who didn't like the idea of Haitians running for office.

"During some of the candidate forums, there were instances where police 
presence was absolutely necessary," Desir said.

By contrast, this year's election has been pretty civil.

"It is changing," Desir said. "Myself, personally, I am working very hard to 
mend fences with every other ethnic group."

In fact, unity is the word being tossed around by candidates, many of them 
saying the issues that affect their constituents transcend race. The 
platforms of most of the candidates hinge on similar issues with public 
safety, city beautification and community programs among the major ones.

Celestin, who speaks Spanish as well as Creole, thinks he can bridge the 
city's different groups. Sorey, whose motto is "Duke: For All The People," 
says ethnicity is not a factor in his campaign.

"I don't look at any one particular group as more important than another," 
Sorey said. "I'm courting every single ethnic make-up in this community."

But despite the talk of racial harmony, divisions persist.

"I don't try to hide the fact that I think there's a real white fear of a 
Haitian quote unquote takeover," said Galvin, who is white. "There's also 
Haitian distrust of the power structure."

Galvin said he doesn't see many Haitian-American residents participating in 
council meetings but thinks that will change if there are more Haitians on 
the council. He also says he doesn't buy into the perception of some 
residents who think a Haitian-American majority might be trouble for 
non-Haitians working in the city.

"I doubt seriously that it'll be `You're fired and we'll hire Haitians,'" 
Galvin said. "That's what people are afraid of."

The perception of the Haitian-American community has evolved in the past 
decade, Desir said.

"Ten years ago, the Haitian community was like the most ignored, the most 
left out community, not only in North Miami, but in some of the other 
municipalities," he said.

That changed when Haitian-Americans registered to vote, and now they have 
the power to make the City Council reflect the city's diversity, Desir said.

The village of El Portal in Miami-Dade County was the first municipality to 
have a majority Haitian-American council. North Miami is Miami-Dade County's 
fourth-largest city, with almost 60,000 residents.

Haitian-Americans have gained political power through increasing economic 
power, said George Wilson, a sociology professor at the University of Miami 
who specializes in race and ethnic relations. There are a lot of business 
owners among South Florida Haitians and North Miami has a "sizable" Haitian 
middle class, he said.

"They have a greater stake in the economic and political system now, and 
they have been very active in North Miami politics," he said.

Haitian-Americans in North Miami will likely benefit from having city 
leaders who can identify with them.

"The various kinds of concerns of the Haitian population in that community 
are more likely to receive a sympathetic ear," he said.

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