Early in his legal career, Rod Vereen became the first African-American assistant federal public defender in the Pensacola area. If voters elect him Miami-Dade state attorney, he would become the state’s first black top prosecutor.
But while Vereen — who is challenging longtime incumbent Katherine Fernández Rundle in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary — acknowledges the “historical nature” of his possible election, he insists his goal is to fix the criminal justice system for everybody.
“It would mean nothing if I wasn’t a successful Miami-Dade state attorney,” Vereen said in a statement through his campaign. “But this history will not belong to African Americans, It will belong to the Miami Dade Democratic Party. Diversity of leadership benefits the whole community.”
The campaign is an unlikely path for a man who has spent most his career defending criminals, and who two years ago launched an unsuccessful bid for Congress. It was on that campaign trail, Vereen says, that he realized that his skills would be best suited as state attorney.
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Along the way, he’s enlisted the support of a cadre of Fernández Rundle enemies.
With their support, Vereen is hoping voter discontent with the justice system and sheer numbers — African American voters account for 37 percent of Democrats in Miami-Dade — will propel him to victory over a well-recognized incumbent. With no balloted opposition in November, the winner of August’s primary race will be the next state attorney.
Vereen says he is not running on behalf of Fernández Rundle’s enemies.
“Of course there are many people that have issues with the current state attorney, and when I’m state attorney people will have a problem with me as well, I’m sure. Many of them may support my campaign, but candidates don’t choose supporters, they choose you,” he said through his campaign.
Others who are just lukewarm about Fernández Rundle, like former Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker, think it’s just time for change.
“He’s a fresh, energetic person that doesn’t have long-standing ties to groups and organization and loyalties and can do a much better job that the current state attorney,” Parker said.
Vereen, who is single and has no children, certainly has a challenge on his hands.
Fernández Rundle is a well-recognized politician with a daunting war chest, so far $533,005 in campaign contributions, compared to his $72,716.
He has never run a large law firm, and ran into some personal financial problems in recent years, including a $40,267 federal income tax lien (he says he’s paying it off) and a condo foreclosure (the case was dismissed in April). Vereen says he’ll surround himself with talented people to help in running the office.
He was born in Germany to a U.S. Army father. He was raised in Carol City and graduated from Florida State University before earning his law degree from the Southern University Law Center.
Vereen worked as a prosecutor in Tallahassee for two years, handling traffic and misdemeanor cases. After that he joined the federal public defender’s office
In the early 1990s, he represented Right-to-Life crusader Paul Hill, who killed an abortion doctor and his escort, on federal charges.
Vereen later started his own firm and moved back to Miami. Around the Richard Gerstein Justice Building courthouse, he is known as an affable and sharp defense lawyer, who has represented an array of clients over the years.
In 2005, he represented a teen who at age 14 stabbed his mother to death. The teen got a 10-year prison sentence, followed by 10 more of probation.
He was also one of three lawyers who represented Miami cocaine kingpin Salvador Magluta in a 2002 federal retrial that ended in a conviction. Vereen also represented Stanley Phanor, one of the so-called “Liberty City Seven” terrorist plotters convicted in federal court in May 2009.
More recently, Vereen was hired by Miami’s Regional Conflict Counsel Office to defend sexual offenders that the state is seeking to confine to civil commitment.
“He’s a fine lawyer and he represents his clients in the finest traditions of the law,” said the office’s head, Gene Zenobi. “He’s prepared. He knows the law. And he’s not afraid.”
On the campaign trail, Vereen — who has repeatedly refused requests for interviews with The Miami Herald — has vowed to try cases himself as state attorney, something Fernández Rundle does not do. He has also made equality in the criminal justice system his signature issue, particularly in Miami’s African-American community.
He has blasted the state attorney’s office use of “direct filing” — charging juveniles as adults. “Direct filing is destroying our community’s future, particularly young African-American males,” he wrote in a Miami Herald questionnaire. “We should stop treating youth offenders as adults so easily.”
But not everyone thinks Miami’s African Americans, who are mostly Democrats, will turn out exclusively for Vereen.
“I don’t think Rod really did his homework in the black community,” said inner-city activist and political consultant Tangela Sears, a Fernández Rundle supporter. “She has a lot of support out here in the black community.”
Vereen has also attacked Fernández Rundle’s record on public corruption, noting the decision not to charge U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Republican, on allegations of financial misconduct.
Most notably, Vereen has railed against what he called the “political” failed prosecution of Michelle Spence-Jones, Miami’s only black city commissioner, who is actively supporting his campaign.
Also supporting Vereen: Former Miami Mayor Joe Carrollo, who criticizes Fernández Rundle for not charging Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado on allegations of campaign finance misreporting.
Vereen is also counting on the support of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association. President John Rivera, a longtime enemy of Fernández Rundle, thinks that Vereen’s career defending accused criminals won’t mean that he will be soft on crime.
“He was also a prosecutor, so he knowsboth sides of the spectrum,” Rivera said. “He has the experience Kathy doesn’t — he’s actually tried cases. And who better to know criminals’ angles and defense angles — and for lack of a better term, B.S. — than someone who had worked for them.”