Miami City Commissioner Richard P. Dunn said this week that he will consider running for the seat of suspended City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones in November, backtracking on his earlier pledge to serve only the remainder of the term.
“That was the agreement that the commissioners wanted me to make,” said Dunn, who lives in Liberty City. “I told them that if it was the wish of the commission, then I would honor that.’’
But, he said this week, “Even though you have made a commitment, or pledge — if you will, to the commission–it’s really the district that makes the decision as to who their representative should be.”
The announcement comes as Spence-Jones’ legal troubles continue to mount in the midst of two indictments this week. She was indicted March 3 by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office on a bribery charge. She was also indicted on the same grand-theft charge that she faced earlier.
On March 4, Spence-Jones surrendered to authorities, and pleaded not guilty. She was released on bond.
Dunn’s appointment grew out of the fact that Spence-Jones was suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist after winning a special election on Jan. 12 to retake her seat. Crist suspended her following her first arrest on grand theft charges in November, and suspended her again after she won re-election again in January. Dunn received the next-highest number of votes in that election.
At a special city commission meeting on Jan. 26 to appoint Spence-Jones’ replacement, City Commissioner Francis Suarez suggested that Dunn should assume the seat, provided that he did not run to keep it in November. At that time, Dunn agreed to the condition, and commissioners appointed him to the seat.
But now, Dunn says he will rely on the will of the people to gauge whether to mount a campaign, ostensibly reneging on his no-run position.
“If the community, a good number of them say, ‘We want you to continue, we want some consistency,’ then perhaps I will take it under consideration,” Dunn said.
Since Dunn has made no formal campaign announcement, Suarez’s office told the South Florida Times that Suarez “declined to comment at this time,” and would rather “wait to see what develops.”
What develops will depend on whether Spence-Jones can return to politics and is re-elected to her seat. In the meantime, Dunn gets to put his stamp on the district. He can even start a campaign, if he chooses.
“That’s his constitutional right”
There is no law prohibiting Dunn from running in November, according to Miami City Attorney Julie O. Bru.
“That’s his constitutional right to do so,” Bru said. “Whatever he promised that commission, whatever motivation was behind the promise, I cannot speak to that. But legally, there is no law that can be enforced against him. It’s between he and the individual commissioners to whom he made that promise.”
District 5, which includes the Overtown, Lemon City, Model City, Little Haiti, Wynwood, Spring Garden, Edison, East and West Buena Vista, parts of Allapattah and Liberty City neighborhoods, has had leadership disruption since November when Spence-Jones was arrested on the first theft charge.
Dunn said he took the seat not for selfish reasons, but to aid his community, which he said was in desperate need of healing.
Born in New York City, Dunn has always lived between Overtown and Liberty City.
While his parents were attending what is now Bethune-Cookman University, he said, they had the rare opportunity to travel with the school’s chorus group and perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
At the time, Dunn’s mother was pregnant with him.
“That was 1960,” Dunn, now 49, said. “It was a really big deal back then and my mother did not want to pass it up. She said, “pregnant or not, here I come,” and I guess I couldn’t wait to get back to Miami.”
A graduate of Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Dunn earned his Bachelor of Science degree in business management from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and a Master of Divinity from Morehouse School of Religion in Atlanta.
“Outside of college, all my years have been spent here in Miami,” he said.
As a child, Dunn, who grew up in New Covenant Presbyterian Church, said that he always wanted to help people, so his calling was no surprise.
“We have a little preacher here’’
Dunn’s parents, he said, founded New Covenant Presbyterian.
“I was not intrigued by academics,” he said, “but Sunday school lessons and religion courses always held my attention. I could easily articulate it to others.”
Dunn recalled a man from the Bahamas visiting his grandfather’s church, Drake Memorial Baptist Church. “He said to my grandfather, ‘I think we have a little preacher here. I was about 11 or 12 at the time.”
He entered the clergy in 1991.
“I was baptized and licensed in my grandfather’s church and ordained by him as well,” he said.
Dunn has been married to Daphne Dunn, a teacher at Northwestern, for 23 years. The couple has two sons, Richard, 21, and Brandon, 18.
Taking priority on his nine-month agenda, Dunn said, are crime, jobs, economic development and affordable housing.
But first, Dunn said, the community needs to heal.
“I will fight for District 5,” he said, “and help people to understand that no one owns the seat. It belongs to the people of District 5 and we [commissioners] are just stewards; custodians.”
Dunn also said that he is in the process of setting up a meeting with Miami Police Chief Miguel A. Exposito.
“I believe that if the police officers would walk the district and ride on bicycles, they would in turn establish a relationship with the citizens,’’ he said. “This no-snitch policy would then go away.”
With lower crime and greater police visibility, Dunn said, people will be less afraid to purchase homes or invest in a business in Liberty City.
Noting the absence of franchises and brand stores in Overtown, Dunn said, “to drive the economy, you can’t just have mom-and-pops; you need an anchor store to support them. There is land in Overtown that can be developed for this.”
Church and state
But even as Dunn lives out his sojourn at city hall, some are ready to see him gone.
Tillman Sneed, a lifelong resident of Overtown, said he is not surprised about what he called “Dunn’s switching of hats.”
Sneed said, “It was a matter of time before this went to his head, is what I say. This is not someone who cares about the district and we don’t need a chameleon. Does his promise mean anything?”
Victoria Pierre, a 14-year resident of Little Haiti, said she does not feel that Dunn, as a pastor, needs to “put his foot in politics.”
Pierre said, “Church and politics don’t mix, and District 5 is in great need of many things. I’m just not sure what he is bringing to the table, but I know we don’t need someone who is all talk. And that’s what I see. Being a pastor does not remove him from corruption or mean that he is experienced.”
Dunn said that since his allegiance is to God, and not to special interests, he feels very qualified to serve.
“God wants godly people in leadership,” Dunn said, “even though that does not mean pastors.”
He said, “I’m a human being and yes, I am a pastor. But somebody has to serve. Who better for the seat than someone who is not beholden to anyone?”
No stranger to the residents of District 5, Dunn said that it is “just a matter of reaching out, which is what I have been doing anyway. The difference is that now I have a stronger platform.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Miami City Commissioner Richard Dunn