To an outsider, the Democratic congressional race looks like a contest between the lady with the wild hats vs. the Haitian community philanthropist and B-movie star.
And by the standards of South Florida’s other tough congressional campaigns, the House District 24 fight between U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson and Dr. Rudy Moise hasn’t been much of a fight at all.
The closest thing to controversy came earlier this year when Haiti’s president essentially endorsed Moise — a coup in a campaign for a North Miami-based seat with the largest proportion of Haitian Americans, 11 percent, in the country.
President Obama recently endorsed Wilson, an even bigger coup in the liberal district, about 59 percent of which is black.
Voters have relatively little bad to say about either candidate heading into Tuesday’s primary, which will essentially decide the election.
“We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Michael Etienne, North Miami’s elected city clerk. “Of course the Haitian-American community would love to send a Haitian-American to Congress. But the Haitian-American community won’t forget the contributions that Frederica Wilson has made.”
Wilson recently secured a $174,000 grant for a North Miami Haitian museum, which hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Moise, a self-made millionaire, has contributed heavily to area charities over the years. Etienne called him a “superstar. He’s a doctor. He has a law degree, he’s a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, and he runs a clinic that has serviced over 25,000 people from the community.”
He’s also an actor, having cast himself in leading roles in self-funded movies with titles like Wind of Desire and Haitian Nights.
The movies and Moise’s charity have made him a recognizable figure in little Haiti, but his wealth is a double-edged sword. He was criticized in his first race against Wilson, in 2010, for living in a $1.4 million mansion in Davie, outside the poor district.
Moise couldn’t be reached for this story and declined earlier this summer to meet with The Miami Herald’s editorial board, which endorsed Wilson, who has held elected office for more than two decades as a school board member, state representative, state senator and now congresswoman.
Wilson is perhaps best known for her hats.
She has hundreds of them, brightly colored and often studded with rhinestones. The hats are such a signature for Wilson that she sought permission to wear them on the U.S. House floor. She was denied the privilege, which she had in the state Capitol when she represented the area for two decades in the state House and Senate.
Wilson gained nationwide attention — and enmity from conservatives — for her strident comments in the case of Trayvon Martin, a teen from her district who was shot in an Orlando suburb by a man named George Zimmerman.
“Trayvon was hunted down like a rabid dog,” Wilson said in May, well before any real evidence in the case was released. “He was shot in the street. He was racially profiled.”
Evidence in the case suggests that Zimmerman followed Trayvon, but it doesn’t conclusively show he hunted the teen. One commentator on Fox News criticized her comments and wondered about Wilson’s “funny hats.”
Wilson’s accomplishments in Congress have been scant. She has sponsored 14 bills since she was elected in 2010. None has passed in the do-nothing Congress, where Republicans control the U.S. House and Democrats control the Senate. She has co-sponsored another 288 bills.
Wilson, who underwent surgery last year, also has a reputation for missing votes — 9 percent — which is worse than the median proportion of missed votes in the House, 2.4 percent.
The residents of the district don’t seem to care. Many feel she speaks for the black community as a whole.
One voter who lives in the district, Roseline Philippe of the Haiti Cherie Heritage Foundation, said it’s tough to choose between Moise and Wilson.
If Moise loses his second straight race, “people could see him as always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” she said. “People might see him as more of a community type rather than a political figure. And now he’s challenging an incumbent who has shown she can deliver.”
President Obama believes so, making the rare decision to endorse Wilson, an early and vocal supporter of the president.
This spring Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, made a rare decision for a foreign leader and entered the fray of a congressional race, endorsing Moise.
“It is very important for Haiti to stand behind Rudy Moise,” Martelly told a Miami Creole-language radio station. “When I say Haiti, Haitians in Haiti; Haitians in the diaspora.”
Wilson resented the comments and essentially told Martelly to worry about his country.
“I am constantly advocating for Haiti in Congress and all across the nation," Wilson told The Herald. “This is what the Haitian people need their president to do as well — not for him to be meddling in United States congressional elections.”