Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign woos Miami-Dade’s first Haitian-American commission chairman

Jean Monestime bowed to his Miami-Dade County Commission colleagues after they unanimously elected him chairman in November.
Jean Monestime bowed to his Miami-Dade County Commission colleagues after they unanimously elected him chairman in November. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign is putting the moves on a man who could prove to be a useful messenger to South Florida’s Haitian-American community.

Jean Monestime, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, is being wooed by Clinton supporters to fund-raise for the former secretary of state — and, perhaps more importantly, to be a face and voice for her on influential Creole-language television and radio.

By early May, Monestime had collected $27,000 for Clinton’s nascent organization, a milestone rewarded with an invitation to her “Finance Leadership Summit” for hundreds of early donors. The meeting, held May 14 at her Brooklyn headquarters, featured panel discussions with Clinton’s campaign brass — and a question-and-answer session with Clinton herself.

“She has a lot of experience, and I think she’s learned a lot over the years,” Monestime told the Miami Herald. “She has good potential. If she’s able to put a good team together — which I know she can — and learn from everyone... we may have the first woman president.”

The courtship of Monestime signals Clinton knows she needs to build support in communities President Barack Obama relied on heavily to win. Haitian Americans vote heavily Democratic, but may not be as excited to cast ballots for Clinton as they were for Obama, the first black president. Clinton also has ground to make up with some Haitian Americans upset that the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation hasn’t got more to show for its charitable efforts in Haiti.

Hillary Clinton has scheduled her first trip to Florida as a candidate next Thursday and Friday. She will raise money behind closed doors in Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Parkland and outside Orlando. A still-undisclosed public event is also in the works.

Obama will meet with donors Wednesday at two Grove events to benefit the Democratic Party and then visit the National Hurricane Center on Thursday. One of Obama’s top Florida fund-raisers as a candidate was a Haitian-American couple from the Grove, radiation oncologist Jean-Philippe Austin and his attorney wife, Maggie.

Clinton’s campaign, which doesn’t like to single out individual donors, declined to comment Thursday about Monestime’s support. Monestime was reluctant to divulge too much about his eventual involvement, saying he’s still figuring out how much he’ll be able to do.

“I have a lot on my plate right now,” he said, calling himself a “die-hard Democrat.” “Nonetheless, I’m helping her. I was honored and very impressed that the campaign reached out to me.”

Monestime is known more for his quiet persistence than for his fiery campaigning. He ousted 12-year incumbent Dorrin Rolle in 2010 and easily won re-election last year, becoming one of the most powerful elected Haitian Americans in the U.S., according to Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center.

“Mia Love is a congressional rep; she’s a Republican,” Metellus said of the Utah congresswoman. “That would leave Monestime the next highest-ranking politician,” she added, though she later noted a Haitian-American Illinois state senator, Democrat Kwame Raoul.

There are 25 elected Haitian Americans across the country, and 17 former elected officials, according to a Sant La analysis. Yet the community has struggled to find a unified political voice. Haitian Americans tried to win a Miami congressional seat in 2010 but couldn’t settle on a single candidate, dividing the vote. The election’s ultimate winner was Democrat Frederica Wilson, an African American.

The Clinton pursuit of Monestime began when Chris Korge, a top Democratic donor who’s close to the Clintons, invited the commission chairman to lunch at City Hall restaurant. Monestime also attended a May 7 “finance strategy session” held at the Ferraro Law Firm on Brickell with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and national political director Amanda Renteria.

“He’s been a breath of fresh air,” Korge said of Monestime. “He’s concerned — as I am, as someone that lives here — that the gap continues to grow between rich and poor, and about how unaffordable Miami-Dade County is becoming for working people.”

Monestime was unanimously elected to lead the non-partisan 13-member county commission in November. He assumed the post in January, calling on a renewed focus on inequality. According to Korge, Monestime found “compelling” Clinton’s recent stances in favor of granting citizenship to many of the immigrants in the country illegally and of granting paid family leave.

Part of Monestime’s appeal is his personal story. At his chairmanship ceremony, he fought tears as he remembered making the trip to South Florida as a teenager on a boat from the Bahamas.

“I have mopped floors, mowed lawns, washed dishes and drove a taxi to put food on my table,” said Monestime, 51, a married father of two and licensed real-estate broker.

“He knows how important the Haitian community and their vote will be,” Korge said, before launching into a summary of his pitch to Monestime. “It could be the difference in the election. And he really is a future star in Florida politics.”