bishop-victor-t-curry_fc.jpgOPA-LOCKA — Six of the nine candidates hoping to succeed term-limited State Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall in Florida House District 109 squared off during a town hall meeting sponsored by the Miami-Dade NAACP on Monday, Aug. 4.

They outlined their views on education and economic development. The forum was held at the New Birth Baptist Church in Opa-locka, and was hosted by NAACP President Victor Curry and WPLG chief political correspondent Michael Putney.

More than 100 people attended the forum, which also featured candidates for county and circuit court judge, and the candidates challenging current Miami-Dade County Commission members Barbara Jordan and Audrey Edmonson. (The incumbents were in Haiti delivering food relief, and were unable to attend.)

The town hall meeting came on the same evening that the Miami-Dade School Board was considering the fate of Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew. Curry rushed from the school board meeting to the forum, which began shortly after 7 p.m. Just over an hour later, when Putney announced that Crew's job had been spared by a narrow 5-4 vote, the audience erupted in cheers.

Democrats Cynthia Stafford, Christopher Norwood, Leslie Quezaire, Robert Malone Jr., Roy Hardemon and James Bush III fielded questions from Curry and Putney about their priorities for improving education and economic development in the district, which includes parts of Overtown, Liberty City, Brownsville, Allapattah and Model City, but also part of upscale Star Island near Miami Beach. (Not in attendance were candidates Barbara Bibas Montero, Bess McElroy and Johnnie Edward Cooper Jr.)

The candidates emphasized their campaign themes. Stafford, an attorney who worked for Bendross-Mindingall and who has received her endorsement, called herself “a daughter of the district,” emphasizing her family ties to the area, including her father, who is a retired Miami-Dade police officer.

Quezaire, a former U.S. Army captain who obtained more than 1,500 signatures to get on the Aug. 26 ballot, said he is a Louisiana transplant who came to Miami to work for former state attorney Janet Reno, and “fell in love with a woman and with Miami.”

“The woman doesn't love me anymore, but I still love Miami,” Quezaine said.

Norwood emphasized his humble origins. The New Jersey native spoke of losing both parents at a young age, and being determined to get an education. He said he used his Social Security entitlement to pay for private school, rather than languish in the Newark school system.

“I understand how important education is,” Norwood said.

The candidates sparred over economic plans, with Bush, a former state representative who served in the Florida House from 1992-2000, and Hardemon, a community activist who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 1998, disagreeing over an emphasis on state grants to spur economic development. Malone, who boasts a Ph.D. from Florida A&M University and worked for state Sen. Larcenia Bullard, disputed Stafford's contention that providing tax incentives would lure businesses to the district while “we continue to have ‘F’ schools, and the population remains under-educated.” 

All six candidates called education funding a top priority, and they decried the fact that Miami-Dade County gets a smaller share of state resources than it pays in property taxes. The six were unanimous in opposing Amendment 5, which would strip schools of property tax funding in favor of a hike in the state's sales tax.

The town hall also afforded audience members the chance to hear from nearly two dozen judicial candidates, as well as from Val Screen, a candidate for Miami-Dade County Commission District 3, currently held by Audrey Edmonson; and Linda Faye Stephens, who is running against District 1 Commissioner Barbara Jordan.

Additional forums are planned around the county, with candidates hoping to improve on typically low turnout for state primaries. The primary election takes place Aug. 26.

Photo: Victor Curry