josaphat-celestin_web.jpgNORTH MIAMI — Based on election outcomes next week, the city of North Miami may have its second Haitian-American mayor, its first Jamaican-American mayor or its first Cuban-American mayor. Voters also could opt to return former Mayor Frank Wolland, who is white, to office.
The mayor’s race, along with two council seats and the city clerk, will be decided in the city’s general election May 12. Residents were casting their votes as early as May 7 for early voting, which ends May 9.

Haitian Americans account for half of the six mayoral candidates. They are insurance agent Sidney Charles, who lost his bid for a city council seat in 1993; current Councilman Jacques Despinosse, who was first elected to North Miami City Council in 2001 and has  served two terms on the council;  and lawyer Andre Pierre, a former chairman of the Greater North Miami Chamber of Commerce.

At one time, there were four Haitian-American candidates in the crowded race. Josaphat “Joe” Celestin, North Miami’s first Haitian-American mayor, had officially announced his candidacy for this year’s election, but dropped out before the filing deadline, saying that he now sees himself as a “door opener.”

“I think it’s a great thing that there are a number of individuals that are interested in running for political office,” Celestin said. “I hope that the risk that I took has paid off by developing an interest in others. And I want to give them the opportunity to taste.”

Celestin first ran for mayor in 1999, but did not win the seat until 2001, beating out postal worker Arthur "Duke" Sorey, who was the first African American ever elected to the City Council in 1995.

With Celestin’s win in 2001, North Miami became not only the largest city in Florida with a majority
Haitian-American city council but also the largest of its kind in the nation. Serving with Celestin on the council were Despinosse and Ossmann Desir, who had knocked Sorey out of his council seat in 1999.

Buoyed by the city’s growing Haitian-American demographics, Haitians were finding a political foothold in North Miami, a city of nearly 60,000 people and the fourth-largest city in Miami-Dade County. More than half of the population – 54.9 percent – is African-American or black, according to the U.S. Census. Some city leaders estimate that 35 to 40 percent of the city is Haitian-American. Whites make up nearly 35 percent of the population and Hispanics, 23 percent.

Celestin’s victory as the city’s first Haitian-American mayor and the city’s growing Haitian demographics do not mean that a non-Haitian candidate can’t win in a citywide election. The city supported Kevin Burns, who is white, for mayor in 2005 when Celestin left office after two terms as mayor.

And when Jean Monestime, a city council member elected to office in 2002, tried to unseat Burns in 2007, Burns was re-elected.

Non-Haitian candidates for the 2009 election include Beverly Hilton, originally from Jamaica, the owner of a pre-K and afterschool program in North Miami; Gustavo Cuervo-Rubio III, a Cuban American who owns a Kung Fu studio in North Miami; and Wolland, who served as mayor from 1999-2001 and as a council member from 1991-1999. He has been city clerk since 2005.

Celestin continues to applaud Haitian-American interest in North Miami politics. With three Haitian candidates in the running this year, Celestin said he preferred to drop out and focus his next political move on the Florida Senate race next year.

“It’s very good that we have citizens that are involved, concerned about the community they love,” he said. “I encourage them and wish them luck."

Editor’s Note: Jenna Farmer and Deborah Acosta are graduate students of journalism at the University of Miami.

Photo: Josaphat "Joe" Celestin