Vowing to fight for society’s neediest, Jean Monestime was installed as chairman of the Miami-Dade commission on Friday, in an emotional ceremony in which he laid out an agenda built around lifting people out of poverty.
“Isn’t America great?” the commission’s first Haitian-American chairman told a standing-room-only crowd at the commission chambers when he took the microphone after being sworn in.
Monestime recounted how he arrived as a teenager to South Florida on what he later called a “rickety” boat from the Bahamas with about 40 other people. His voice broke.
“To the families and individuals of this community who are struggling to make ends meet, I understand the challenges you face,” he said. “I have mopped floors, mowed lawns, washed dishes and drove a taxi to put food on my table. My family’s table as well.”
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Along the way, Monestime, 51, who is married to Kettia and has two sons, earned a master’s in business administration and became a licensed real-estate broker. “My family now enjoys a modest prosperity,” he said.
But he added that many in Miami-Dade, the largest county in the southeastern U.S. do not. It went without saying that he was speaking in particular about the district he has represented since 2010, one of the county’s poorest, which includes Little Haiti and North Miami.
Wages remain flat, housing costs are rising and tolls “can cost a worker an hour of his wages every day,” Monestime said, striking a populist tone.
“The county commission can knock down many of these barriers to prosperity,” he said, asking his colleagues to take on reducing income inequality as their top objective in his two-year term.
He announced the creation of a Chairman’s Council for Prosperity Initiatives to start a discussion on the issue. In a move closely watched by County Hall insiders, Monestime later informed commissioners in a memo that he had scrapped the existing legislative committee structure. Instead of arranging eight committees around different departments, Monestime opted for six panels tied to revenue sources. There’s a committee for general property taxes, for example, and another for taxes that fund the county’s unincorporated areas, known as UMSA.
The six committees are: Strategic Planning and Government Operations (chaired by Juan C. Zapata); UMSA (Javier Souto); Transit and Mobility Services (Esteban “Steve” Bovo); Metropolitan Services (Barbara Jordan); Trade and Tourism (Jose “Pepe” Diaz), and Economic Prosperity (Xavier Suarez).
Monestime highlighted the commission’s nonpartisan status as a benefit to passing legislation.
“We are not a gridlocked Congress,” said Monestime, a Democrat. Later, in what appeared to be a reference to past racial and ethnic tensions on the commission, he added: “We are all here now. Our diversity is our strength.”
Sworn in as the commission’s vice-chairman was Bovo, 52, a Republican who represents portions of Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Palm Springs North. His oath was delivered by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a longtime friend and possible 2016 presidential contender who also employs Bovo’s wife, Viviana. The Bovos have five children.
Rubio provided a moment of levity when he walked to the front of the chambers and realized he was missing a key piece of information. “Does someone have the oath?” he said.
Bovo, who sometimes takes Metrorail from Hialeah to County Hall, said his focus would be on improving transportation. Sounding conciliatory to labor unions who have been at odds with him and Mayor Carlos Gimenez in the past, Bovo also said politicians should no longer “point the finger” at public workers in political fights.
“The district I represent only knows one thing, and that’s work,” he said. “Work and sacrifice. Educate your children, and hopefully your children will pull you up.”
Monestime and Bovo met last week to discuss the contours of their relationship. They agreed on prioritizing big-ticket transportation and road, bridge and pipe projects — with Monestime arguing that past county leaders have failed to advocate for higher property taxes when they have been needed.
On hand were dignitaries from Miami-Dade politics past and present, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the former county property appraiser, and former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek.
Monestime was elected unanimously by his colleagues in November after Commissioner Audrey Edmonson abandoned a months-long effort to win the chair’s position herself.
Outgoing Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa thanked Edmonson in her remarks.
“This demonstrates that this is a united board,” Sosa said. “We have differences of opinion, thank God, that’s democracy.”