Haitian Americans Edge Toward First U.S. Congress Seat

Photo: Ferret111

(Photo: Ferret111/flickr)

Florida could be on the verge of making history by electing the first Haitian American to Congress. Four out of nine candidates vying to win the Democratic Primary in the 17th Congressional District are of Haitian descent.  The winner in the overwhelmingly Democratic district in South Florida is all but certain to go to Washington in 2011.  The only opposition is coming from attorney Roderick Vereen, who is running without party affiliation.

The abundance of Haitian American candidates reflects the district’s population–it has the largest concentration of Haitians in the country, and by some estimates they account for a quarter of the vote.   The seat is being vacated by Kendrick Meek (D-FL), who has held it since 2003.  Meek, who is running for the U.S. Senate, took over from his mother, Carrie Meek, elected to the seat in 1992, after the district was redrawn.

Over the past 10 years Haitian Americans have made gains in the Florida legislature.  And while this is the first time they have a shot at a congressional seat, some in the Haitian community fear the four candidates may be their own worst enemies.

Community leaders say there’s a lot of momentum among Haitian immigrants in the district to elect one of their own, but with four to choose from, its quite possible the vote will be split–and the candidates, all popular, will cancel each other out.

Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La, a Haitian American community center in Miami, says an initial effort to unify the community around one candidate was unsuccessful.

“I’m disappointed that we couldn’t convince the four of them that they needed to make a sacrifice for the benefit of the community,” she said. But Metellus believes the failure to unify was a natural growing pain that many immigrant communities go through as they mature into a political force.

The four candidates are state Rep. Yolly Roberson and former state Rep. Phillip Brutus (who used to be married to each other), long-time community leader Marleine Bastien and health care entrepreneur Dr. Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Moise. Four of the remaining five candidates are African-American, and one is white. The Miami Herald has endorsed Shirley Gibson, the mayor of Miami Gardens who, like Rep. Meek, is African American.

Rudy Moise has raised and spent the most money on the race by far, and has bought a tremendous amount of radio and television ads. Yves Colon, a Haitian American journalist and lecturer at the Miami School of Communications, says the fact Moise is running complicated the race for the other candidates–who in the past sought him out for campaign contributions. “People used to hit Rudy up for money, but now he’s running,” he said.

Colon says the four Haitian American candidates have similar positions on the issues–but the community tends to vote based on personality rather than issues. “In the Haitian community everybody has partisans, everyone has fans, it’s like Facebook friends,” Colon said.

Dessalines Ferdinand, who hosts a radio show and is editor and publisher of Le Floridien, a Haitian newspaper in South Florida, agrees. “Most Haitian Americans don’t vote on your program, they are more focused on your relationship with leaders in the Haitian community.” The problem, Ferdinand says, is all four of these candidates are popular.

All of the candidates are talking about immigration reform, and finding a solution for the thousands of Haitians who have applied to come to the U.S. after the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January.

What to do about undocumented immigrants in Florida (many of whom are Haitian) has become  a major issue in the state’s Republican gubernatorial and senate primaries, also taking place on August 24.  In the GOP gubernatorial race, State Attorney General Bill McCollum and his challenger Rick Scott are battling to be seen as the most hard-line on illegal immigration.

Though she says it will be difficult, Metellus remains hopeful that voters will choose an advocate for the Haitian community next Tuesday. “It would be an historic victory, a historic moment for the Haitian diaspora.”

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