For eight years Barbara Jordan has had a comfortable perch on the Miami-Dade County Commission, easily fending off challengers for the District 1 seat that cuts through the northern part of the county and spreads all the way to the Broward County line.
Now, she’s in the fight for her political life, opposed by a well-heeled political veteran who is popular in her community and is credited with helping create the county’s third-largest city.
The Aug. 14 race between Jordan and Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson has become an ugly slugfest, with the candidates not shying from verbal jabs or direct attacks.
The animosity between the two women was made clear during a forum sponsored by the Miami Times at the historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Overtown. The two never made eye contact, never acknowledged each other and sat as far away from each other as possible at a table set up on the altar.
Then they got loud and fiery.
Her voice rising, Jordan blasted Gibson as being beholden to Norman Braman, the billionaire auto magnate who is supporting her campaign. “A single person determines how you vote. If they buy you now, they will own you later,” said Jordan. “Barbara Jordan can not be bought. District 1 is not for sale.”
Composed but firm, Gibson fired back at the commissioner, saying she was an ineffective bureaucrat who fought Miami Garden’s incorporation attempt, and who voted for a sweetheart deal for the Miami Marlins’ Little Havana ballpark.
“I agree District 1 is not for sale,” Gibson added, “because my opponent has already sold it.”
Also in the race is Wade Jones, a consultant who worked as a community liaison for Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, and who was superintendent of bus operations for Miami-Dade from 2005-07. His local moment of fame came in 2006 at a Bayfront Park ceremony for the basketball champion Miami Heat, when Jordan accidentally introduced the series’ most valuable player, Dwyane Wade, as Wade Jones.
The winner of the District 1 battle will represent a region that resembles an upside down pyramid, with Opa-locka to the south, and which gains width as it heads north through Central Dade into Miami Gardens. Its 200,000 residents are predominantly black, accounting for almost three-fifths of the population.
Historically, District 1 has been one of the county’s poorer regions, slicing through parts of Liberty City into Carol City and Norland.
Jordan, 69, was born in New York City and reared in Homestead and Florida City. She received a master’s of science degree from Nova Southeastern University in 1986, and has worked in county government for the past 37 years, working her way up to the post of assistant county manager, where she oversaw 13 departments. She was first elected to her commission seat in 2004.
Gibson, 68, moved to Florida when she was 10. She attended high school locally and worked her way up to a master’s at St. Thomas University. By that time she had already become a county police officer, spending 16 years there and working her way to detective. In the 1990s she became an active member of the North Dade community council, then turned her attention to the creation of Miami Gardens. She’s been the city’s mayor since the city was incorporated in 2003. In 2010 she ran a lackluster campaign for Congress and lost to state Rep. Frederica Wilson.
Central to the two women’s debate: An argument by Gibson that Jordan has hindered the district from growing, and that the commissioner publicly warned at the time incorporating Miami Gardens was a poor idea.
Jordan has since admitted the move worked out for the best. But a decade ago, Jordan warned repeatedly that the city would be a drain on county services and that taxes would have to rise in order to support the new municipality.
“I was an assistant city manager when they incorporated,” Jordan told The Herald’s editorial board last week. “My concern was that they were not being told the truth about a tax increase. They had a $7.5 million deficit when they incorporated. That never came out in the community.”
Still, Gibson and former County Commissioner Betty Ferguson moved forward, firm in their belief that a municipal government could better serve the community and enable residents to feel ownership. Now Gibson boasts of a balanced budget, a highly respected police department, cleaner streets, cleared sewers, and the opening of new businesses like Walmart and a Mercedes Benz dealership.
Though overall crime in Miami Gardens has fallen by a third since Gibson became mayor in 2003, violent crime, especially murder, is on the rise, and there are large pockets of neglect.
The 60,000 registered voters in the city make up about half the voting in District 1.
State Sen. Oscar Braynon II, a former Miami Gardens city council member, called the difference between Miami Gardens now and a decade ago “night and day.”
“The parks look completely different. Now you actually have to drive the speed limit through Miami Gardens, and there’s a sense of community from one end to the other,” he said.
Another disagreement between the two main candidates: Gibson said that she attempted for years to get Miami Gardens its fair share of the county’s half-penny sales tax for transit, with little help from Jordan. Jordan, Gibson maintains, wouldn’t help and suggested the city file a lawsuit to try to get the money. Ultimately, the county commission, including Jordan, voted unanimously to give Miami Gardens a yearly cut of the transit tax, which amounted to $10 million the first time the city got the money.
A key issue in the race, as it is in three other county commission races, is Braman’s support of the challenger. Braman is supporting a slate running against the incumbent commission members because of their votes for a property tax-rate hike two years ago and for building the Marlins’ $634 million ballpark.
Braman has contributed $5,000 to Gibson’s campaign, a large chunk of the $20,960 she had collected by the end of July, county records show. Those same records show Jordan had amassed $184,364, a large amount collected from attorneys, real estate concerns and developers. Jones had collected only $8,740, county records show.
At times Jordan has struck out at Braman. She recently bashed him, saying that even though he’s fabulously wealthy, he obtained public redevelopment money for an area on Northeast Second Avenue near Downtown Miami, where he has built auto dealerships, repair shops and a gas station, Gibson has responded by saying Jordan has received thousands of dollars from special interests in the campaign.
Win or lose on Aug. 14, Gibson will remain Miami Gardens mayor until the Nov. 6 general election. Jordan would also retain her seat until then, should she lose.