Miami-Dade’s District 2 Commissioner Jean Monestime faces a familiar ballot on Aug. 28. It is the third time he’s running against his predecessor, Dorrin Rolle.
Now the two are on the ballot once more, setting up the most familiar of races among the five commission elections being held this month.
For Monestime, the 2018 election is the latest test of his ability to show the county is improving lives in one of the poorest commission districts in Miami-Dade. About 27 percent of the residents live in poverty, second only to the 37 percent poverty rate in neighboring District 3, according to a 2016 county study.
Monestime made fighting poverty the centerpiece of his tenure as commission chairman after the 13-member board voted him into the powerful post shortly after his reelection in 2014. He became the first Haitian American to lead the county board and established a special committee on anti-poverty measures.
That panel pushed through a string of proposals that became law. That included a measure eliminating inquiries about criminal history on county employment applications, allowing hiring supervisors to consider past convictions later in the interview process.
Monestime also sponsored an expansion of an existing program that provides loans to first-time home buyers by dropping geographic restrictions on the assistance.
“I have the concerns of the community at heart,” said Monestime, 55. “I’ve made a strong push to have those concerns heard.”
Rolle hopes to tap into dissatisfaction in District 2 as Monestime seeks a third term. He also wants to take advantage of nostalgia for the challenger’s 12 years on the commission.
“The constituents have said they missed my voice. They need my voice downtown,” Rolle said. “Plus, it’s in my blood to try and bring services closer to the people.”
Rolle is faulting Monestime for gripes in the district, including a post-hurricane debris pile that rose above the rooftops from a county-owned lot off Northwest 25th Avenue at the edge of District 2 last fall. He’s also cited homelessness in the district, and says he’ll stay in touch with constituents in a way that Monestime doesn’t.
“During my administration, I was very visible,” said Rolle, 73. “I plan to be visible again.”
Monestime easily won his first challenge from Rolle by taking 64 percent of the vote in August 2014. Rolle barely cleared 30 percent, a decisive loss in the three-person primary for a former commissioner who was once so prominent in the district he earned the nickname “governor.” It was much closer four years earlier when Monestime pulled an upset and beat Rolle by six points in a runoff in November 2010 after a primary that had six candidates.
Commission seats are nonpartisan, and each district’s candidates compete in an August primary. If someone wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the election is over. Otherwise, the top two finishers compete in a November runoff on Election Day — a scenario that’s not possible in District 2, since Monestime and Rolle are the only candidates.
Term limits that took effect in 2012 restricted commissioners elected that year and beyond to a pair of consecutive four-year terms. If Monestime wins later this month, he can’t run again in 2022.
Rolle was under a cloud in 2010, following the bankruptcy of the James E. Scott Community Association, a nonprofit funded in part by Miami-Dade that was best known as JESCA. Rolle left the community association in 2008, and the social services agency went bankrupt the next year.
The group received funding from the county while Rolle was serving as both the commissioner and the paid head of the association, and the county faced a $300,000 bill from the federal government over a housing grant in place when the association collapsed. Rolle blamed the problems on criminal fraud at the group from the early 1990s, before he took over.
Rolle lists about $140,000 in retirement income on his financial disclosure form for his District 2 candidacy. Monestime lists his $50,000 compensation as a county commissioner and does not list income from his business as a real estate agent. His financial-disclosure form lists roughly $300,000 in liabilities, including an $83,000 mortgage for a property in Wellington first described as being in foreclosure in 2014.
Monestime said that was vacant land he had purchased as an investment property that has since been sold, but that the original mortgage holder is still pursuing the debt. “I still get the occasional letter from the lender,” he said. “So I disclose that.” He also was hit with a foreclosure during the depths of the real estate crisis in 2009, before seeking the District 2 commission seat.
As chairman of the board, Monestime presided over approval of the 2016 SMART Plan, an effort that launched transit studies along six commuting corridors. The plan is about to yield its first big decision as a county transportation board, which includes all 13 commissioners, is set to vote later this month on whether to pursue rapid-transit bus service or a Metrorail expansion in South Dade.
Monestime also stepped into a controversy involving Donald Trump before he ran for president. In 2015, Trump had been in secret talks with the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez to pursue a management deal of the Crandon Park golf course.
When the discussions became public, Gimenez recused himself, citing his son’s employment by Trump as a lobbyist on matters involving city governments. The mayor’s recusal shifted responsibility for the negotiations to Monestime, who opposed Trump’s plan. With little to no support on the County Commission, Trump dropped his bid about six weeks before he announced his presidential run.
Monestime represents one of the two commission districts where a majority of the residents are black. District 2 sits on the northern end of Miami, and touches Hialeah to the west. It also includes the cities of North Miami Beach, Opa-locka and North Miami, where Monestime served as a city commissioner before winning his county post.
In District 2, Monestime is tempering praise for his first term’s accomplishments with an acknowledgment that progress has not come quickly. In his first term, Monenstime helped secure funding for sewage hook-ups to commercial properties he hoped would spark an influx of new businesses.
“This is government,” Monestime said. “Things have not moved along as quickly as I would have liked.”
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.