Democrats will debate on doorstep of Miami’s black community. Will they talk about it?

Historic Overtown Visitor Center tries to redefine the perception of Overtown

The Overtown Visitor Center is working to bring the arts and culture of the area to not just residents, but to people coming from other areas, says Kamila Pritchett, development coordinator for the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of
Up Next
The Overtown Visitor Center is working to bring the arts and culture of the area to not just residents, but to people coming from other areas, says Kamila Pritchett, development coordinator for the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of

The Adrienne Arsht Center is one of the biggest performing arts centers in the United States, located in a ritzy downtown Miami neighborhood that will be the center of attention when 20 Democrats running for president debate for the first time this week.

But the debate will also take place in Florida’s poorest congressional district, which has the 11th lowest median income out of 435 congressional districts nationwide. It’s also home to the country’s largest Haitian community and includes neighborhoods like Overtown and Liberty City, and the city of Miami Gardens, with the third highest percentage of African-American residents of any U.S. city over 100,000 people.

Frederica Wilson represents Florida’s 24th Congressional District in Washington, and the 76-year-old educator-turned-lawmaker is in the majority party for the first time in her 21-year political career after Democrats flipped the House last year. The issues that matter to voters in Wilson’s district differ from most other parts of Miami-Dade County, where Cuban Americans are the dominant ethnic and political force and 2020 candidates descend on wealthy areas like Coral Gables and Miami Beach to raise campaign cash.

The district voted overwhelmingly in 2018 for Andrew Gillum, Florida’s first African-American gubernatorial nominee, but Republicans were able to run up margins elsewhere to win statewide governor and U.S. Senate races.

Wilson said the most important political force in her district is black women, who show up to vote and tell their friends and family how to cast their votes. She’s disappointed a black woman isn’t among the debate moderators.

“Black women vote in extremely high numbers and make sure that other people in their lives turn out also,” Wilson said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party’s electorate, and I think a black woman moderator would ensure that the debate includes issues of greatest concern to the African-American community.”

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson describes her struggle to get a health center opened in Liberty City at the ribbon-cutting and naming ceremony on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. Video by Carl Juste/Miami Herald Staff

For Karen Cartwright, a 22-year resident of Overtown, a historic black neighborhood a few blocks from the debate stage, politicians from both parties have failed to connect with regular people in her community.

Decades ago, the federal government tore through the area when Interstate 95 was built. The project displaced thousands of residents who were not consulted in the planning stages, according to historians, and a once-vibrant community was disrupted.

Cartwright, 66, says revitalization has crawled too slowly and regular folks are still struggling with meeting the demands of everyday life — paying bills while putting food on the table.

Any politician’s promise means little to nothing to her and her neighbors until they can have access to better-paying jobs, an affordable education and housing.

“Many of these single mothers are working multiple jobs just to pay the bills,” she told the Herald. “That’s not living. That’s hustling.”

As Miami has undergone an unprecedented, rapid transformation from languishing trouble spot to global hotspot, locals increasingly have trouble finding a place in the city to call home.

Cartwright’s concerns are echoed in the younger generation, which grapples with the difficult outcome of Miami’s low-wage, high-cost-of-living equation. Valencia Gunder, a 35-year-old activist who grew up in Liberty City, said she hopes to see candidates address Miami’s lack of affordable housing, particularly as climate change threatens to rock the real estate market in a way that would displace the low-income neighborhood built on higher ground as coastal residents would look to move inland.

“I’d like to see the candidates’ visions for an equitable environmental plan that would serve everyone,” she said. “One that would include mitigation and adaptation.”

Valencia Gunder, 35, is a community organizer from Liberty City who wants to see Democratic candidates talk about housing affordability and climate change. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

At least one 2020 candidate was campaigning on climate change in the district before the debate. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who unveiled a plan Monday to phase out fossil fuels and establish an Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Justice, will visit Little Haiti on Tuesday. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker campaigned in Miami Gardens in April, and a minivan crashed into the building as he made his stump speech.

Reaching black voters

State Rep. Dotie Joseph, a Democrat whose district includes Liberty City and Little Haiti, said both parties have historically done a bad job of engaging black voters, and communities of color in general, not just black women.

“I will be the first to admit that my party’s outreach has been insufficient,” Joseph wrote in an email. “We must commit real money to build infrastructure in communities of color during the campaign but also to maintain it in the off years. When the vote margins are as close as they have been in Florida, successful engagement of voters, like those in my district, make all the difference.”

But engaging voters in Joseph and Wilson’s overlapping districts will require localized messaging.

For many black communities, the disproportional mass incarceration of men for nonviolent drug crimes has left women to be backbones in their communities — as advocates, child-rearers and workers.

Cartwright and Gunder both called on candidates to address criminal justice reforms in their plans.

A group of about 25 protesters outside the Richard Gerstein Justice Building in NW Miami protested about police treatment of minorities on Friday, May 11, 2018.

Public safety resources, they say, should be poured into tackling gun violence and providing more resources for victims. Tangela Sears, whose son was shot dead in 2015, said the focus on semiautomatic rifles in the wake of mass shootings such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killings isn’t enough.

“We are killed by ordinary guns every day,” said Sears, who leads a support group called Parents of Murdered Kids.

Tangela Sears crowd16.jpeg
Tangela Sears, who runs a support and advocacy group for people whose children were murdered, said the pain is the same for parents, whether they lost their child last year or a decade ago. Her son was killed in 2015.

She spoke in solidarity with all victims of gun violence, regardless of where they happen and which weapon is used, while asking candidates to offer their plans for bolstering youth programs and making sure local law enforcement has strong victim advocates to aid grieving families.

Wilson, who has an issue tab on her website devoted to “black men and boys,” recently introduced legislation to establish an advisory body that will study the societal forces that disproportionately impact black males in America. Standing next to her at a recent press conference touting the legislation was Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, one of her constituents.

Local issues matter

Politicians from around Florida have tried to mobilize and speak to voters in Overtown, Liberty City and Miami Gardens, with varying degrees of success. For every Gillum, who captivated voters by showing up to campaign in South Florida nearly every weekend as the state’s first African-American gubernatorial nominee, there’s a Bill Nelson, who campaigned off a double shooting in Liberty City but messed up his facts.

“The candidates that do their research can really stand out,” said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with any 2020 candidate.

Ulvert said the conversation about gun violence plays out differently in Liberty City and Overtown than nationally. He said candidates should talk about guns “in a different conversation point that is ground in where the debate is being hosted, and show they understand the intricacies of a complex map.”

Ulvert said candidates who show they understand the community where they’re speaking from on Wednesday and Thursday will reap benefits with Miami voters. They’ll also show voters around the country that they can talk about issues and policies in a nuanced way, whether they are speaking to African Americans in Miami or a different community somewhere else.

“A presidential candidate who drills down a little deeper and uses the debate stage to drill down where they are standing beyond the four walls of the Arsht Center can really pay dividends because they’re able to showcase their knowledge of the community. It shows primary voters in other states that they not only appreciate the richness of their party, they understand different communities.

“My guess is not all 20 of them are going to do that. My guess: Some of them will try to do it. That is one way you can distinguish yourself as a candidate without getting into the food fight of primary issues.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. Alan Diaz AP

Wilson, who has not announced a 2020 endorsement, is looking for candidates to show how they’ll best represent Florida’s minority communities as Donald Trump makes an aggressive play for votes in a state he almost assuredly needs to win to ensure a second term.

“There are two Floridas. There’s a Florida that is doing just fine and it’s basically the majority community, the Anglo community, and then there’s a Florida that is continuously struggling and that’s people of color, mainly African-American and Hispanic,” Wilson said.

“So I would look for the candidates at the debate to address what they will do to close not only the financial gap but the social status gap and the healthcare gap.”

Lincoln Memorial Park has fallen into disrepair because of a lack of funding and care. Now the cemetery looks for ways to survive.

Related stories from Miami Herald

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, ranging from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He attended the University of Florida.