Miami’s District 5 has long been the city’s most perplexing and troubled band of neighborhoods.
From Overtown through Little Haiti and up into Liberty City, no neighborhood offers a better view of the glitzy new condos that tower over downtown Miami. Look east from almost any part of Overtown, and the skyline is only a stone’s throw away — though seemingly out of reach.
Many areas of the city’s poorest district are wracked with crime and sky-high unemployment. It’s a problem that has grown over the past 50 years, since Interstate 95 construction tore through the community’s core and split what was once a vast cultural destination. Riots only added to the district’s woes, scaring away possible development and forcing residents to flee.
Now, because of redistricting, candidates vying to represent District 5 on Nov. 5 must learn to straddle between the inner city and at least a portion of a quickly developing waterfront neighborhood. The district, which has historically run from Overtown to Liberty City, suddenly absorbed the neighborhoods of Buena Vista, Oakland and Palm Grove, Shorecrest and Belle Meade.
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In addition to dealing with crime and public-works woes, the candidates are suddenly facing constituent concerns over controversial height restrictions and complaints from shopkeepers about parking meters driving away customers. The change in boundaries last summer increased the district’s population by about 5 percent to 80,193. Though registered black voters still constitute the vast majority of voters at 65 percent, the number of Hispanic and white non-Hispanic registered voters both made significant gains, jumping to 26.5 and 6.5 percent, respectively.
Early voting begins Monday. Absentee-ballot voting is already under way. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two vote-getters would take place Nov. 19.
“Before this, [the issues were] mostly crime,” said Robert Malone Jr., a substitute teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High who is taking his second shot at the district seat.
Malone, a long shot to fill the seat that will be vacated by two-term commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, faces a strong field that includes former District 5 Commissioner Richard P. Dunn II, Miami-Dade assistant public defender Keon Hardemon, and Miami-Dade Children’s Trust Executive Jacqui Colyer.
Two weeks ago, during a debate on the Upper Eastside, the candidates were very careful to include their new constituents early on in the discussion.
“We’re better as one district together. I’m making you a commitment today that I will work with every community in District 5,” Colyer said.
Hardemon ticked off the names Buena Vista, Belle Meade and Shorecrest before explaining how he “fights for the people’s rights every day in a courtroom.”
And Dunn apologized to Buena Vista residents for voting on a 35-foot height restriction during a commission stint two years ago when he occupied Spence-Jones’ seat while she was suspended from office.
“I’m going to publicly apologize,” Dunn said. “I will come to you, the residents, to determine what you want.”
Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno said the black vote will still determine who wins the election.
“Everybody’s kind of stuck in the same boat. It really doesn’t help one candidate or the other,” Moreno said.
Dunn, 52, is married and the father of two. He is also the senior pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church in North Central Dade, and the most politically experienced of the group. He’s been saddled with financial troubles for decades.
Dunn was first appointed as a Miami commissioner in 1998 after Miller Dawkins was arrested. Dawkins was jailed for two years in 1997 after pleading guilty to accepting a $100,000 bribe as part of the city’s infamous Operation Greenpalm scandal.
More than a decade later, commissioners again chose Dunn to fill a vacant seat, this time when Spence-Jones was suspended by the governor for almost two years. Over those 21 months, Dunn won a special election for the seat, helped cut city pensions that led to balanced budgets, and created a teen curfew during an explosive time in Overtown and Liberty City.
After a seven-month period that saw Miami police shoot and kill seven black men, beginning in the summer of 2011, Dunn successfully fought to oust Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito, whose job was in jeopardy while he fought with the mayor over a video-gaming ordinance and who tried to explain the shootings.
“This is not my first time at-bat, I’ve served before. There is no substitute for experience,” he said.
Financial issues have dogged Dunn for decades. In the early 1990s while at Drake Memorial Baptist Church, Dunn’s grandfather accused him of using church money for personal expenses. He eventually paid the church back. Public records show that his wife Daphne filed for bankruptcy in January 2012, and the case was cleared in November. County records show the couple owe $1,214.88 in back property taxes from 2012. The county has offered a certificate, which means anyone purchasing the debt has the right to foreclose on the home after three years. The couple could pay the debt off before then.
Dunn couldn’t be reached for comment late last week.
City records show Dunn has raised $20,865 through September, though he said he expects to collect almost $200,000.
Hardemon, youngest of the group at 30, and the nephew of longtime Liberty City politicos Billy and Barbara Hardemon, has toned down his rhetoric from last summer’s failed run at Audrey Edmonson’s county commission seat. He did well, receiving 20,000 votes.
An assistant county public defender, Hardemon lists paying taxes, obeying the law and protecting the U.S. Constitution among his civic duties. He has the support of Spence-Jones and the city’s fire union.
The Miami Northwestern Senior High and University of Miami law school graduate has hammered away at his local ties. At one point during a debate two weeks ago, he pointed to his mother in the audience, a Desert Storm veteran and Miami police officer.
“I was born and raised in Liberty City to a poor family, in public housing,” Hardemon told the crowd. Playing to the Upper Eastside crowd, he said he’d like to ease the city’s permitting process, and increase private/public partnerships to create more development.
He said shoddy 79th Street could use a makeover: “The only time you see 79th Street bustling is when you watch the movies.”
By the end of September, Hardemon had raised $51,404.
Colyer, 63, has a long history working in social services.
Born in Overtown, Colyer was chief executive of the state’s Department of Children & Families until two years ago and now directs neighborhood and community services for the county’s Children’s Trust. She’s made three unsuccessful runs at a statehouse seat since 2000.
She retired in 2011 from DCF after a grand jury determined DCF caseworkers and investigators gave Jorge and Carmen Barahona a pass when concerns were raised about the couple abusing their twins. Nubia was found dead in the bed of her adoptive father’s pickup truck in Palm Beach County in February 2011. Her twin brother, Victor, was discovered doused with deadly chemicals and slouched in the cab. He survived.
“There was murder on my watch,” Colyer said. “[DCF Secretary David Wilkins] just felt he had to do something.”
Colyer said though she’s considered running for Miami office in the past, this time she was talked into doing so by friends and neighbors.
Colyer, president of the Oakland Grove Homeowners Association, believes local crime would drop dramatically if the city adopted a community policing model similar to the one Los Angeles has employed in the Watts neighborhood.
“We can’t keep using the same techniques. Violence on violence doesn’t stop violence,” Colyer said.
By the end of September, Colyer had raised $51,748 between her campaign account and an Electioneering Communications account called People for a Better Community.
Malone, 45 and single, lost a run for the District 5 commission seat during a 2011 special election. His support in the district’s new Upper Eastside was evident during a debate two weeks ago when the crowd cheered almost every time he spoke — especially when the substitute teacher at Jackson High said he would give up outside employment if he won the election. Miami commissioners earn just over $100,000 between salary, car, phone and some other stipends.
He’s a graduate of Florida A&M University with a master’s in criminology at Florida State University, and the president of the Hadley Park Homeowner’s Association. Malone said he wants to see better “short-, medium- and long-term planning” in Miami, and wants overspending on projects to stop.
Malone said public works’ woes like decrepit water and sewer lines need to be fixed before development comes to Overtown and Liberty City.
He suggested the city find some money to help with the billions of dollars in needs. The multi-billion dollar system is owned and run by the county, which now has a $12 billion plan to fix the pipes and flawed water treatment plants.
Malone also said he’s concerned with a plan being pushed by Spence-Jones to extend the name Little Haiti from 36th to 79th streets. He believes it could cause harm to entities like the Little River Business District.
“They have a brand. They’re trying to use the brand to expand and do more business. Respect all the areas for their uniqueness,” he said.
As of the end of September, city records show Malone had raised $8,975.