Jean Monestime, who left Haiti alone at age 17 to move to the United States and went from washing floors at a doughnut shop to running his own real-estate business, was elected Monday as the first Haitian American chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
His colleagues chose him by acclamation, voting unanimously in what they said was a show of unity for a board sometimes pulled apart by ethnicity and race. Monestime represents one of the poorest commission districts, a Northeast Dade corridor that includes portions of Little Haiti, Liberty City, North Miami, North Miami Beach and Biscayne Gardens.
“What an honor this is,” the 51-year-old Monestime said, his voice breaking. During his two-year term as chairman, which will begin Jan. 1, he promised to “allow our diversity to strengthen our community instead of divide us.”
Esteban “Steve” Bovo, 52, was elected, also unanimously, as the commission’s vice chairman. He represents areas of Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Palm Springs North.
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“Our actions today show that the American Dream ... continues to live on,” said Bovo, who is Cuban American. “Many have come from abroad to establish themselves in this community.”
The two men are part of the commission’s newer wing. Monestime became Miami-Dade’s first Haitian American commissioner in 2010. Bovo took office after a 2011 special election. Some of their fellow board members have been around since the 1990s.
Monestime and Bovo will replace outgoing Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, who will remain on the board as a commissioner, and former Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell, who lost reelection in August.
Though commission positions are nonpartisan, both Bell and Sosa are Republicans. So is Bovo, but Monestime is a Democrat. The last Democrat to lead the commission, Dennis Moss, ended his chairmanship four years ago. Six commissioners are Democrats, six are Republicans, and one is independent.
The commission chair’s power, however, does not usually come from partisan ties but from the discretion over the agenda — and, crucially, over the leadership and membership of committees that can block proposed legislation. Commissioners are scheduled to meet next month to decide how many committees, and which ones, it should have. Monestime will appoint members, chairpersons and vice chairpersons.
Though all commissioners are eligible to chair the full board, the only candidates nominated Monday were Monestime and Audrey Edmonson. Edmonson, however, declined the nomination.
“I think, for once, this commission needs to move forward without us competing against each other,” she said.
Commissioners praised Edmonson’s move as gallant. No vote had been taken, but it appeared clear that she would not have had a majority of votes to win anyway. Bovo was the only vice chair nominee. Commissioner Barbara Jordan was absent due to her mother’s recent death.
While commissioners are not allowed to speak to each other about board business outside public meetings, lobbyists and political consultants are known to count votes behind the scenes and rally support for their preferred chair candidate for weeks before the election takes place. By the time the day comes, the result can be a foregone conclusion — though insiders were jockeying for votes as late as this weekend.
Prior orchestration appeared evident Monday when Sosa asked Monestime, fresh from hugging and shaking hands with his colleagues, to hold off on his acceptance speech. She called on a man in the audience to congratulate him. It was Daniel Supplice, who presented Monestime with a poster signed by Haitian President Michel Martelly. Supplice is the former minister for Haitians living abroad.
But Sosa denied any preordination, telling the Miami Herald later that she did not invite Supplice to the ceremony. She found out in the morning that Supplice was on hand and, though she could not rework the agenda for his presentation, said she would allow it once the ceremony was over. The perfect moment presented itself after the chair vote, she said.
Monday seemed to go Monestime’s way from the start. Before the chair vote, commissioners held a symbolic ceremony for their five reelected members, most of whom were formally sworn in last week. Monestime was one of them. So was the only new commissioner, Daniella Levine Cava. Monestime’s two sons, Clarence and Darnell, had been listed in the program as the ceremony’s national anthem singers.
Yet at the appointed time, neither son walked to the stage. Monestime stepped down from the dais, took the microphone and explained that one son was in school taking a test. The other, he would explain later, had lost his voice over the weekend.
So the commissioner himself sang instead.
The rest of the commission, and the audience in the standing-room-only chambers, joined him.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.