City of Miami

Richard Dunn trying to close gap in race for Miami commission seat

Richard P. Dunn II was outmaneuvered in Little Haiti.

For months, political observers wondered aloud why the term-limited Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones was pushing a study to determine — and possibly extend — the boundaries of Little Haiti. The divisive effort seemed to be an affront to some of her strongest supporters, older African-Americans with roots in communities like Lemon City and Little River.

In the end, a move she said was nothing more than fulfilling the legacy of a predecessor on the commission paid off handsomely for her successor of choice, Keon Hardemon, as the Haitian community awarded him almost twice as many votes at it gave Dunn on Nov. 5, according to elections records.

Right or wrong, many of the community’s voters perceived Dunn as someone who didn’t want Little Haiti’s boundaries extended. Dunn’s campaign seemed flat-footed and uncoordinated on the ground that day, some campaign workers said.

Dunn is still resented by some in the community for not putting enough Creole-speaking workers in the Little Haiti Cultural Center during a previous stint in office, and for not speaking up during an effort two years ago by some business owners to have Little Haiti’s name changed.

“All these things happened under Dunn. The community remembers this,” said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian community leader and executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. The people of Little Haiti, she said, are “prized voters. They are passionate about politics.”

The lack of support Dunn received in Little Haiti — a neighborhood that has historically had a high voter turnout — offers a glimpse of why the candidate, once considered a heavy favorite to win the commission seat for District 5, slipped to a distant second, edging out Jacqui Colyer to make Tuesday’s runoff against Hardemon.

In the past two weeks Dunn has replaced several staffers with people who worked for Colyer, a Miami-Dade Children’s Trust executive. Gone is Dunn’s campaign manager Gregory King; in his place is Colyer herself, a seasoned manager who has spent a career overseeing large staffs and budgets.

In the sprint to Tuesday’s election, Colyer has organized gatherings to raise Dunn’s profile, none more important than last Wednesday’s at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, where Dunn was surrounded by North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau and past Mayor Joe Celestin.

The trio spoke of harmony and unity and of how Dunn — now their favored candidate for the District 5 seat — could lead the way toward uniting Haitian and African Americans, who have had a shaky history getting along in Miami.

As he spoke, Dunn blasted Spence-Jones for what he said were efforts to create official boundaries for Little Haiti. He promised to help Little Haiti find a permanent identity — but not at the expense of older, established communities.

“We were on the verge of seeing a divided community, and it was done because of political intentions,” said Dunn, adding, “We all acknowledge that there is a Little Haiti,” but that its boundaries will also honor Lemon City, Little River and Overtown. “We will build bridges across the community.”

Hardemon denied sending extra resources to Little Haiti on Election Day, saying the neighborhood has been a focus throughout his campaign, and that he “stomped” Dunn in many neighborhoods, not just Little Haiti.

“At the end of the day his actions are what caused the demise of his campaign,” said Hardemon.

In the past two weeks Dunn has pieced together a string of endorsements that should help him chip away at Hardemon’s large lead. Besides Colyer’s support, Dunn has received endorsements from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff and Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort.

Hardemon, who at 30 was the youngest in the first-round field of four candidates, wants to persuade voters that despite his youth and lack of political experience, his local ties and legal skills — he’s a former Miami-Dade assistant public defender — will suit him well in representing the 80,000 residents of Miami’s most diverse district.

Dunn, 53, counters that his seasoned political history, job creation efforts while in office, and attempts to reform the city’s police department should outweigh recent campaign fundraising gaffes and a personal history of financial problems.

Tuesday, voters of Miami’s District 5 — the most diverse, winding linkage of neighborhoods in the city thanks to recent redistricting — will go to the polls to decide which candidate will replace Spence-Jones, who remains popular. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Dunn’s name recognition, gained through previous stints as a city commissioner and his longtime leadership as senior pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church, had him pegged as a heavy favorite heading into the Nov. 5 election. But late campaign finance report filings and questionable spending have given voters pause. In October a U.S. postal inspector in Miami concluded Dunn mailed his report 18 days late, despite Dunn’s claim that that the report was lost in the mail.

That same report showed extensive visits to area restaurants and 43 lump-sum payments to seven women totaling more than $18,000. King, Dunn’s former campaign manager, admitted to making some payments in cash, which is against state election laws. Two of the seven women said they were not paid anywhere near the amounts recorded, or as often as the report said. Dunn is also being fined about $6,000 for his most recent finance report, which was due Nov. 1. It showed up on Nov. 12, according to Miami elections coordinator Dwight Danie. Dunn said he will appeal the fine.

Dunn has refused to respond directly to questions about his finances, saying the media and voters should be more concerned with issues that plague the district, like public housing and crime. He promised to correct any mistakes when the election is over.

“We have a new team working on that now,” said Dunn.

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