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Diversity Changing North Miami Politics

Diversity bringing change to North Miami politics

By Madeline Barˆ Diaz
Miami Bureau

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, ĀOh! 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 ĀYou'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.

Madeline Barˆ Diaz can be reached at mbaro@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5007.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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