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North Miami’s upcoming city elections expose racial tensions

North Miami mayor candidate Kevin Burns was lamenting the city’s privatized garbage services when he reached for an example he thought the mostly Haitian audience could relate to at a recent candidate forum.

“If you’ve seen your garbage pickup lately, it looks like the drivers of the garbage trucks had too much Barbancourt rum,” said Burns, dropping the name of Haiti’s popular rum brand.

Almost immediately, Lucie Tondreau, one of five Haitian-American candidates running for mayor, jumped up to the mic and took Burns, the lone white person in the race, to task.

To “say they have been drinking too much Barbancourt rum is an offense to me and my community,” Tondreau said.

In any other city, Burns’s comment might be shrugged off.

But this is North Miami, where simmering tensions between the growing Haitian population and long-time white residents, have boiled over recently.

Where a recent council meeting dissolved into a crowd of Haitian-American and white residents shouting, “You’re racist” across the aisle at one another. Where residents allege there are anti-white campaigns on Creole-language radio. Where a slow-speed car chase by the mayor’s wife, pursuing her husband’s alleged campaign sign thief, led to her being called the n-word.

With election season in full swing, the perennial topics of lower taxes and public safety have taken a back seat to a loftier goal: unifying the city.

“It’s the East side — the white side, versus the black side — the West side,” said Joseph Haber, who is running for the District 2 council seat. “We need to bring unity back to community.”

Lost amid the political infighting and allegations of racism are the issues voters care about, said resident Judy Feldman.

“There’s very little discourse going on,” said Feldman. “It’s infuriating. For the most part it’s B.S. and puffery. ”

The discord didn’t happen overnight.

North Miami, the fifth-largest city in Miami-Dade County, used to be predominantly white.

According to the 1990 Census, the white population made up 63 percent of the city and blacks accounted for 32 percent.

By 2010, the city’s black population had grown to 59 percent and its white population had dwindled to 32 percent, according to the 2010 Census. Observers attribute a large part of the growing black community to upwardly mobile Haitian families who left Little Haiti for more suburban neighborhoods.

The Census estimates that Haitians make up roughly a third of North Miami’s population.

In many ways, North Miami is an immigrant community’s dream realized.

“The Haitian community has a voice. Years ago we didn’t have that power, we didn’t have the force,” said resident Gernier Origene. “In Little Haiti there was crime and a lot of craziness. North Miami is the new and better Little Haiti.”

He added, “The white people don’t like to hear that.”

The city is represented by a Haitian majority council. The Haitian-born mayor, Andre Pierre, is joined by two other Haitian-Americans on the five-member council. Haitian-Americans hold high-ranking positions at city hall — police chief, finance director and city attorney.

But the weaving of Haitians into North Miami’s fabric has not been seamless.

Pierre’s two terms in office fueled tensions when some residents questioned if the mayor, between official trips to Haiti, represented the entire community or just Haitians.

Some residents were so incensed of Pierre’s leadership that they started a secession movement for the neighborhoods east of Biscayne Boulevard: Keystone Point and Sans Souci. The movement fizzled.

The East side is comprised of more affluent neighborhoods east of Biscayne Boulevard with a sizable white population. The West side — the neighborhoods west of Northwest Seventh Avenue — has a large concentration of Haitian residents.

“Anyone who says there is no racism in North Miami is fooling themselves, ” said Councilman Scott Galvin. “But it’s not the entire community. We’re not doing enough to bring everyone together to have this conversation to see how much we have in common.”

The city’s African-American and Hispanic residents can sway the election, but they are mostly silent.

Both Haitian-Americans and whites say the other side is to blame.

When Burns made the Barbancourt rum comment at the candidate forum, the audience of mostly Haitian residents laughed.

To turn it into a racial issue, Burns said, “was self serving on that candidate’s part.”

“Would it have made a difference if I said Jack Daniels? I was referring to something the audience could relate to.”

Carol Keys, a candidate for the District 2 Council Seat, said talks of harmony and becoming one city are hopeless during the election season.

“The unity, it’s not going to happen during these elections. You have candidates out there saying you can’t vote for a white person. Why shouldn’t I be able to represent all segments of our city? Because I’m white?

Non-Haitian candidates have publicly and privately complained that on Creole-language radio, on-air personalities fan racial flames by referring to candidates as the “white candidate and “black candidate.”

Keys experienced attacks on Creole-language radio two years ago when she unsuccessfully tried to unseat Pierre in the mayor’s race.

Then, a candidate for mayor, she sent out a mailer depicting pigs wearing business suits. The pigs, she said, were a metaphor for special interest groups stuffing their pockets with taxpayers’ dollars.

Days before election, Pierre’s supporters took to the airwaves on Haitian radio. The pigs, they insisted, symbolized the mayor and the Haitian community at large.

“Everything in our city turns into race because the politicians that are sitting up there use the race card to incite the people and that gives them power,” Keys said. “They turned an innocent piece of campaign literature into a total lie to incite hatred.”

On the other side, members of the Haitian community take exception to the insults hurled at Pierre by white residents.

“They call him dictator, Papa Doc, Duvalier,” said Tondreau, one of the Haitian candidates running for mayor and a Pierre supporter.

Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a ruthless dictator in Haiti, was accused of orchestrating the murders of thousands of Haitians.

“For Haitians, Papa Doc and tonton macoutes are not something we want to necessarily be associated with. When they bring up Papa Doc, that is something many Haitians are sensitive about,” said Tondreau, who likens it to calling a local Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

“Whenever they have a white mayor, even when they don’t agree, they address that mayor with a different kind of tone. It’s not the same tone they address the current mayor,” she said.

Former North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin understands the frustration on both sides.

“It is partly true that you have that stuff going on Haitian radio, but it’s also true on the other side that they contribute to this racism stuff,’’ he said. “Neither side is innocent.”

Missing, he said, is a frank and open community conversation.

Pierre, the current mayor, has been criticized for several incidents during his two terms in office, most notably, his nephew’s arrest last year for allegedly accepting a bribe to sway council votes. The case is pending.

A council meeting held last year in which residents brought up the arrest ended with Haitian-Americans and white residents yelling “racist” at each other.

Tondreau was at that meeting.

“The mayor may have had issues, but he was never convicted in a court of law,” she said.” The perception in the community is that the white people on the east side think the mayor is a criminal.”

Keys, who is a vocal critic of Pierre’s, said it’s unfair that disagreeing with the mayor is lumped into being against Haitians.

“If he was white, I’d be in his face just as much. I don’t think that corruption is a Haitian issue,” said Keys. “I think it’s an Andre Pierre issue.”

After the May 14 election, Celestin said the city should host an open forum that calls on residents to stop the feuding.

“A community is comprised of different people.” he said. “North Miami is a melting pot. We need to recognize that: One people, one group, one love.”