Divorced Couple Eye Florida Seat

Haitian-American political activists believe they are on the verge of electing the first Haitian-American to Congress in Florida’s Miami-based 17th District, which is home to the highest concentration of Haitians in the nation. 

But they are also fearful that so many Haitian-American candidates will enter the open-seat race to succeed Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) that the community’s vote will splinter and a historic opportunity will be squandered. 

It’s a dynamic that has played out over and over in local city council races around the Haitian enclave of Miami Gardens, the largest city in the district. 

Indeed, three Haitian-American candidates have already prepared to run, including former state Rep. Phillip Brutus, state Rep. Yolly Roberson and community activist Marleine Bastien — all of whom have political bases within the district. 

Brutus, the first Haitian-American elected to the state Legislature, said he is working to clear the field because it’s impossible to win the nomination unless one candidate wins the community’s full backing. 
“The community has spoken loud and clear that we’re tired of this division and want to have one person representing the community,” Brutus said. “And the pendulum seems to be swinging my way.” 

His efforts could be complicated by one inconvenient fact: Roberson is his ex-wife, and the two have become intense political rivals. Roberson, who represents the state House seat that Meek held in the Legislature, has been able to win support from both the African-American and Haitian-American communities. 

“When it comes to political things, it gets very testy — particularly for this race. I think she feels like I’m the hurdle she has to clear to become the congresswoman,” Brutus said. “An ex-wife syndrome is a complex syndrome. I’ve been a lawyer longer than her, and she got elected because of my name. And yet she thinks she’s better than me.” 

For the community, though, the election is about much more than personal politics. Local Haitian-American activists believe winning the seat is a critical first step toward advancing an agenda that they believe has been neglected. 

“There will be a huge national push from the Haitian community from the country, seeking to support someone to make that happen,” said state Rep. Ronald Brise, a Haitian-American whose legislative district covers much of the congressional district. “That person will have the responsibility of being the representative of the Haitian people all over the country.” 

Meek, who is African-American, paid close attention to Haitian issues in the House — there’s even a Haitian Creole version of his congressional website — and he receives high marks from the Haitian-American political community. But there’s still widespread sentiment within the community that they are best served by one of their own. 

“When you feel it, you can articulate it better than when you learn about the issue. You won’t have the same drive and passion on an issue if you haven’t experienced it,” said Brutus. “Because they never experienced clearing customs, they’ve never been asked for a visa or a passport, they’ve never gone through the whole trauma of dealing with relocation. You have to be in it to feel it, to understand it.”

Immigration is the issue that tops the list of Haitian-American concerns. At the moment, there are tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants in legal limbo, seeking asylum in the United States and requesting temporary protected status to ensure they won’t be deported.

The community has also been backing congressional efforts to allow Haiti to receive trade preferences on clothing exports in an effort to help the impoverished country’s economy.

“This race signifies the maturation of a very important group in South Florida politics,” said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “The Haitian community first exercised their clout in local races — and they’ve become quite cohesive as a political group. So it’s natural they’re looking beyond the city council and looking to run for Congress.”

If Haitian-Americans are unable to rally behind one candidate, few doubt that it would pave the way for a non-Haitian candidate to emerge as the Democratic nominee — the only nod that matters in the heavily Democratic 17th District.

Longtime state legislator Frederica Wilson, a proven fundraiser who announced her candidacy in February, is among the top non-Haitian candidates. Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson and Miami Gardens Councilman Andre Williams have also announced they’re running.

In a district that is geographically the smallest in Florida, insiders say the ability to rally supporters will be critical in a crowded primary, regardless of how the eventual candidate field shapes up.

“This is not your traditional race, where it comes down to who can raise the most money and put the most ads on television,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff. “This about getting out there and working all the communities, door to door.”

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