Diversity Changing North Miami Politics
Diversity bringing change to North Miami politics
By Madeline Bar
May 6, 2001
North Miami + This city could
become the largest in South Florida with a majority Haitian
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
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
"It was a totally new group, a new culture, coming into the
arena," Celestin said. "The city had never seen a black [mayoral] candidate
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
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
Two white candidates are vying for another open council
seat and a third white candidate, John Stembridge, is running for
Desir blames some of the conflicts of two years ago on a small
group of people who didn't like the idea of Haitians
"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
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
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
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
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
"They have a greater stake in the economic and political system
now, and they have been very active in North Miami politics," he
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 Bar Diaz can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5007.
Copyright © 2001, South Florida