Haitians build political power in northeast Miami-Dade

Josaphat “Joe” Celestin remembers the first time he ran for mayor of North Miami in…

Josaphat “Joe” Celestin remembers the first time he ran for mayor of North Miami in 1999.

His opponents displayed negative images of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to suggest that’s what would become of the Northeast Miami-Dade city if Celestin won. One voter played “Dixie,” the anthem of the former Confederacy, as Celestin approached his door while campaigning.

“That didn’t stop the will of God and the will of the people,” Celestin, who was elected in 2001 as the first Haitian-American mayor of a sizable U.S. city, told the Miami Herald.

Over the last 20 years or so, dating back to when El Portal elected the country’s first Haitian-American mayor in 2000, the landscape for Haitian Americans in politics has changed. A national network of current and former Haitian elected officials that Celestin helped create has grown from just three members in 2001 to over 150 now. Many of them have served in South Florida, home to the country’s largest concentration of Haitian expatriates.

As Haitian Americans have settled in the suburbs of Northeast Dade, they have created a politically influential power bloc in the face of resistance. Political tensions playing out in North Miami Beach, which for the first time has a Haitian-American majority on its city commission, offer the latest example of those growing pains.

Issues of race and ethnicity have boiled over during meetings with city commissioners. Mayor Anthony DeFillipo has been censured by his colleagues for derisively suggesting Haitian commissioners wanted to replace the city clerk with a “person of their own heritage.” And a proposal to annex a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood has been swept up in questions about how it would affect the demographics of the city.

The friction has only become more pronounced since the commission became majority-Haitian in November with the election of Daniela Jean. On multiple decisions, votes have swung 4-3 with the city’s four Haitian-American officials in favor. After an impromptu vote to fire the city’s contract law firm and replace it with the firm of a longtime municipal lawyer who is Haitian American, the mayor claimed a deal had been illegally brokered before the vote. On Facebook, DeFillipo suggested the four commissioners who voted for the change “just wanted their puppet in that seat.”

Some critics of the city’s Haitian-American commissioners have suggested the city is “at risk” of becoming more like North Miami — a neighboring city racked by past scandals and financial problems that has a larger Haitian population and a Haitian-American majority on its city council.

To be sure, the two cities share some politics. But much like the references to Port-au-Prince when Celestin first ran for office, some say the comparisons between North Miami Beach and North Miami are based more in discrimination than they are in reality.

“Intentionally or unintentionally, that’s an idea formed by racism,” said Stephen Hunter Johnson, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board.

Celestin, the former North Miami mayor, said the backlash when new ethnic groups build political power is a familiar feature of Miami-Dade politics. He saw it when Cuban Americans gained power in Miami and were accused of running a “banana republic.” And he saw it in North Miami Beach when Italian-Americans — including DeFillipo’s father, Kenneth DeFillipo — ran city politics and faced claims that they were tied to the mafia.

“It’s just the way human beings react to a new group taking control of the government,” Celestin said. “It’s just the fear of what people assume.”

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Former North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin handout

Haitian influence grows in North Dade

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, about 20% of North Miami Beach residents are Haitian. But the actual figure is likely a lot higher, said Alix Desulme, a city councilman in North Miami and the chairman of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, the group co-founded by Celestin.

Over 40% of the North Miami Beach population is Black, according to 2019 Census estimates. And census data from 2017 showed there were around 120,000 people of Haitian descent living in Miami-Dade County. Many in the area have concentrated in Northeast Dade, which has become a hub of Haitian-American life in South Florida due in part to upward mobility and also the gentrification of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

As North Miami Beach’s Haitian-American population has grown, so too has the desire for Haitian-American representation in the city. In 2018, when six of seven seats were up for election following a tumultuous year of corruption and scandal, voters chose three new Haitian-American commissioners. In 2019, the city appointed a Haitian-American clerk.

But Desulme, the North Miami councilman, recalled hearing frustrated North Miami Beach residents call into Haitian radio shows to complain that the commission, despite having three Haitian-American members, hadn’t delivered projects for neighborhoods like Washington Park, which is heavily Haitian American and African American.

“Their response was, we can’t do that because we don’t have a majority. The community was upset with them for two years,” Desulme said. “They went out there, they got the majority.”

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North Miami Vice Mayor Alix Desulme CHARLES TRAINOR JR [email protected]

‘Elections have consequences’

That happened in November when voters elected Jean. This year, commissioners voted to hire a Haitian-American contract attorney, and are poised to select a new top administrator following the exit of former City Manager Esmond Scott, who resigned under pressure.

Johnson, the Black Affairs Advisory Board chairman, who has also represented Haitian-American Vice Mayor Michael Joseph in legal matters, said it’s normal for elected officials to pick new city managers, attorneys and clerks when political winds shift.

“Elections have consequences,” he said. “If a group of [elected officials] feels they are not given the proper amount of attention from the charter officers, for whatever reason, that’s going to be a political issue.”

But the recent moves have caused friction.

In February, former clerk Pamela Latimore — who is African American — sued the city for employment discrimination, alleging that “a group of Haitian American City Commissioners desired to appoint a Haitian American and a younger person to the City Clerk’s position.”

And following the hiring of new contract lawyer Hans Ottinot, DeFillipo contacted the state attorney’s office to request that public corruption investigators look into whether a deal was cooked up privately by the city’s Haitian-American commissioners.

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North Miami Beach Mayor Anthony DeFillipo

DeFillipo’s detractors, however, note that the city has a history of snap decisions about the fate of top officials.

Desulme, the North Miami councilman, suggested a double standard was at play. He said actions by the city’s Haitian-American commissioners have been scrutinized in a manner that wasn’t applied in the 2010s, when North Miami Beach had a group of white elected officials — DeFillipo, Barbara Kramer, Marlen Martell and George Vallejo — who often voted as a bloc and were known as the “Fabulous Four.”

“It certainly wasn’t like that when four white folks were up there making decisions together all the time,” he said.

But Kramer, who is still on the commission, said the current situation is different.

“Our majority was at least inclusive,” Kramer said. “Their majority just completely slaps us in the face and entertains none of our feedback or research. Never did I not involve my colleagues in a decision-making process.”

Differing philosophies

Despite the tensions, North Miami Beach commissioners who spoke to the Herald downplayed the extent to which race and ethnicity are driving politics in the city.

Commissioner McKenzie Fleurimond, who was first elected in 2018 and is Haitian American, noted that last November he won the city’s Eastern Shores precinct where the vast majority of voters are white or Hispanic, and few are Black.

“White, Hispanic, Jewish [voters] were coming to the polls and saying, ‘I want this Black man to represent me because his ideology, his work ethic and his history with the city prove that he can get the job done,’ ” said Fleurimond. “You can’t win North Miami Beach with Haitian votes alone.”

Political ideology, Fleurimond said, may divide the city commission as much as race or ethnicity.

He pointed to recent drives to bring city services back in-house, such as operation of the city-owned water utility that had been outsourced in 2017 to a private company, Jacobs Engineering. Fleurimond is also pushing to take back city control of garbage pickup, which was outsourced in 2015.

Fleurimond suggested the four Haitian commissioners may vote together more often because they’re more liberal. Three of them — Fleurimond, Joseph and Jean — are also millennials, younger than their colleagues.

“It just so happens that you’re going to find more Haitians that are of an ideology that leans more left,” Fleurimond said. “Naturally, they’re going to be more likely to agree on certain issues.”

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North Miami Beach Commissioner McKenzie Fleurimond

Questions of transparency have also driven conflict. The February vote to oust the city’s contract law firm and hire Ottinot was done with no notice and little discussion. At the next meeting, Joseph proposed unsuccessfully that the commission approve Arthur “Duke” Sorey, the deputy city manager in North Miami who is African American, as the new city manager to replace Scott, who had announced his resignation earlier that night.

Commissioner Fortuna Smukler, who is white and opposed both moves, said she’s focused on doing things the right way, not on the race or ethnicity of who gets hired.

“I have legitimate concerns about the process of how everything has been done,” she told the Herald. In the case of the new city attorney, “I never had an opportunity to meet with or speak to the person I was supposed to be voting on,” she said.

Differing philosophies on how to spend taxpayer money — and how much of it to spend — contribute to the friction too. The city has built up healthy reserve funds and should work to maintain them, said Fleurimond, but he said the city’s Haitian commissioners may be more willing to spend than their counterparts.

“This Black majority, this Haitian majority is more than that. It’s really about seeing the use of city resources differently, putting the people’s money to work for them,” Fleurimond said. “The money is the people’s money. If they have needs, we have to respond to those needs.”

Smukler said she takes a more conservative approach.

“I really don’t care if it’s four Haitians, four whites, four Jews, four Cubans — if it’s spending money that I don’t think is necessary, I’m still going to vote no,” she said.

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The North Miami Beach City Commission meets on Jan. 28, 2021. City of North Miami Beach

A city poised to grow

The festering political tensions in North Miami Beach come at a critical moment for the city, which could be ripe for a development boom. Late last year, the commission voted 4-3 to approve a $1.5 billion transformation of the Intracoastal Mall site.

Growth has long been a hot-button issue. Officials have talked for over 15 years about the possibility of expanding the city’s population by annexing unincorporated areas, the largest of which is a “doughnut hole” surrounded by municipal land in the so-called Windward neighborhood.

Proponents say it could help lift the city over the 50,000-resident mark, which would make it eligible for direct federal entitlement funding. It’s not yet clear whether the 2020 Census count will do the trick.

But that issue has also gotten wrapped up in race and ethnicity. In an interview last year with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, Scott, the former city manager, said that Joseph, the vice mayor, was “begging me not to proceed with annexation” because “it would dilute the Haitian vote.” Joseph did not respond to a request for comment.

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North Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Joseph City of North Miami Beach

Residents inside the proposed annexation area are largely Orthodox Jewish.

“I don’t know that it would serve the Haitian majority well,” Johnson, the Black Affairs Advisory Board chairman, said of the annexation proposal. “To think that a politician is not aware of the political realities caused by any decisions they make would be naive.”

Ultimately, Fleurimond said, residents want the same things: “clean water, police responding on time, clean streets and good public services.”

Celestin, the former North Miami mayor, said the tumult that comes with shifts in power will eventually pass.

“After that,” he said, “we all get along and live happily ever after.”

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Aaron Leibowitz is a municipal government reporter for the Miami Herald. He writes about local politics in every city, village and town in Miami-Dade County and sometimes beyond.