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7970: North Miami's new mayor no stranger to controversy (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

North Miami's new mayor no stranger to controversy

MAYOR-ELECT: Josephat "Joe" Celestin says his election as mayor of North 
Miami is 'not about being Haitian American.' He hopes to build consensus 
after what has been a divisive mayoral campaign.

The spoils of victory for Josaphat ``Joe'' Celestin, the first 
Haitian-American mayor of a large Miami-Dade city, are these: two 
plainclothes North Miami police officers guarding him as he thanked 
supporters Wednesday.

The officers were assigned after North Miami Mayor-elect Celestin reported 
receiving the first of many threatening phone calls on election night. He 
says there have been 19 so far, and police are investigating.

``I don't care,'' Celestin says of the callers who block their number and 
yell ``go home'' before hanging up.

What Celestin, a divorced father of four, does care about is his 
post-election campaign: building consensus in a city trying to mend wounds 
created during a deeply divisive mayoral campaign.

One day after his win, Celestin downplayed the very thing that has made his 
election noteworthy.

``I am an African American, that is what I am,'' Celestin says. ``Haitian 
Americans feel they can see their image inside of me. But it's not about 
being Haitian American.''

Celestin, 44, is no stranger to controversy or politics.

Before Tuesday's runoff victory against former North Miami Councilman Arthur 
``Duke'' Sorey, Celestin made three unsuccessful bids for political office: 
for the Legislature in 1996 and 1998, and for mayor in 1999. He also 
actively opposed a county transportation tax proposed in 1999.

``I was destroyed at the polls,'' Celestin says of his unsuccessful 1996 
election bid to represent District 109 in the Florida House. He ran against 
James Bush III in the Democratic primary.

He regrouped, switched parties, and ran as a Republican for the District 36 
state Senate seat won by Democrat Kendrick Meek in 1998. A few months later, 
he filed to run in the North Miami mayoral race against Frank Wolland. He 
lost, again.

``This feels wonderful,'' Celestin says of his recent victory, in between 
handshakes and congratulatory remarks Wednesday. ``This is something to feel 
good about.''

For Haitian Americans, Celestin's victory is only the most recent of a 
series. Voters in Northeast Miami-Dade elected a Haitian American to the 
Florida House last fall, and a Haitian-American City Council majority in El 
Portal in 1999. El Portal also had a Haitian-American mayor last year.

On Tuesday, North Miami voters also elected immigration consultant Jacques 
Despinosse, also a Haitian American, to the five-member council. Despinosse 
and Celestin will join the city's first Haitian-American council member, 
Ossmann Desir. The trio will provide North Miami with a majority 
Haitian-American City Council.

Their election reflects the city's changing demographics, something Celestin 
is keenly aware of. The 2000 Census shows that North Miami now has a black 

While Celestin rode to victory by sweeping black neighborhoods, he is far 
from being a universally beloved figure in the Haitian community.

His biggest support came from Haitian radio announcers, who urged voters to 
vote Haitian and support Celestin. His critics hammered away at his party 
affiliation and his track record.

He has been dogged by questions about whether he really lives in North 
Miami. Celestin, the president of his own firm, Joe Celestin Civil Engineer 
and General Builder, says he lives in North Miami with his fiancée.

Nadia Pierre, a Haitian American who supported Sorey and told Haitian voters 
that party affiliation did matter, said, ``My concern about Joe is he is a 
true Republican, whereas Haitians have suffered a lot under the Republican 
Party. He defended [Gov.] Jeb Bush on affirmative action, he defended Jeb 
Bush when they sent Haitians back and kept Elián here.''

Celestin is aware of his critics. He dismisses their concerns as campaign 
rhetoric -- especially talk about his Republican Party membership.

``Everybody knows that Joe Celestin is a member of the Republican Party,'' 
says Celestin, who lost a lawsuit against Sorey in which he asked for his 
opponent to ``cease and desist'' from mentioning party affiliation.

Celestin views himself as part of a movement of blacks who have switched 
parties after becoming disenchanted with Democrats.

``As African Americans, we have more in common with the Republican Party 
than with the Democratic Party,'' he says. ``They don't take care of African 
Americans' business. We get neglected by the Republicans, but we are taken 
for granted by the Democrats. I will be a member of any party that will take 
care of our people.''

Among those traveling with Celestin on Wednesday was Danny Ruiz, a Dade 
political consultant who has worked on various Republican campaigns.

Ruiz said he was asked to help Celestin by a member of the state Republican 
Party. He said he was brought in to ``neutralize things,'' and is doing the 
work pro bono.

``The great thing about Joe is that he's the same with everybody,'' Ruiz 
said. ``He's had people confront him who don't like him, and he's the same 
with them as he is with those who support him.''

Despite trying to reach out to other communities, Celestin can't help but 
think about what his election means. For some Haitians, he says, it was 
bigger than the presidential race.

``I heard someone say, `In the 1970s we came by boat; now we are arriving by 
votes,' '' he said. ``We have arrived.''

Herald staff writer Walter Pacheco contributed to this report.

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