To review: The Miami election is barely two weeks old, and the winner and incumbent in District 5, Michelle Spence-Jones, has been driven from office.
Gov. Charlie Crist suspended her after she was charged with stealing tens of thousands of dollars in grant money intended for her community. It’s an all-too familiar story in Miami, which has a long history of political scandal. But it’s especially ugly given the outsized challenges faced by the neighborhoods that Spence-Jones used to represent. They include Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti, which face higher-than-average unemployment and crime rates, and lower-than-average economic development.
There are so many villains in this runaway catastrophe, so it’s hard to narrow it down to just five. But here goes.
Number 5: The voters. Do you believe the residents of “D5,” fewer than 10 percent of whom bothered to vote in the election, knew nothing about their commissioner’s reputation? I don’t. For years, Spence-Jones has been dogged by allegations of sketchy ethical practices, from kickbacks for condo votes to allegedly pressuring developers to hire her friends (including Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler) as “consultants.”
And while so far she has beaten the rap every time (not because investigators deemed her innocent, but because they couldn’t come up with enough evidence,) surely anyone with a TV has at least caught the drift. Yet nearly 83 percent of voters picked Spence-Jones over her two opponents. There’s an old saying in politics: You get what you vote for.
Number 4: Disbelievin’ black folk. When she addressed supporters at her swearing in, Spence-Jones counted herself among a long line of “persecuted” black elected officials: Former Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins (nabbed for taking bribes by the FBI’s “Operation Greenpalm” in the late ‘90s); former Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele (who committed suicide in 2005 and whose career was marred by federal money laundering, mail and wire fraud charges, among others); former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek (whose name and SUV popped up in the sordid “House of Lies” / Dennis Stackhouse probe by The Miami Herald); and Spence-Jones’ political mentor, Carey-Shuler, who was named in an alleged cash-for-votes scheme by the purported bag-man himself … after the statute of limitations had run out. She even tried to lump in poor President Barack Obama, who’s got enough problems of his own, just trying to be president.
Sadly, many black folk buy Spence-Jones’ line, and will dismiss the latest allegations as part of an ongoing conspiracy to destroy black leaders. Too bad more of us don’t ask how so many of these “leaders” can be living so well while their communities remain so poor. I wish I could get a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” (which Spence-Jones supporters sang as she walked into central booking) for that.
Number 3: Barbara Carey-Shuler. The former Miami-Dade County commission chairwoman was called “courageous” by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for giving evidence against her friend. But logic suggests that it wasn’t courage that made the former commissioner talk. Confronted with a letter containing (a stamp of?) her signature, which improperly steered $50,000 in county grants intended for two non-profits to a company owned by the family of the woman who calls Carey-Shuler her “second momma,” it isn’t hard to imagine “momma” deciding that “baby” would look better under that bus than she would. Now, Shuler is reportedly backtracking, allegedly telling Spence-Jones’ lawyer that her words were “taken out of context” and she never intended for Spence-Jones to get arrested. Two cautionary words come to mind: Scooter…Libby. Better to stick to your “courageous” story, ma’am.
Number 2: Michelle Spence-Jones. It’s hard to know where to begin with the suspended commissioner who has cast herself as a warrior for her battered community, but who is accused of spending thousands of dollars in ill-gotten grant money on such worthy public projects as shoes, trips, perfumes, satellite TV and pet care. Power to the people (and pets!) Throw in the allegation that she used her influence as a staffer to then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz to secure a grant for – and to then get a kickback from – her own pastor, who is accused of blowing some of that money in Vegas, and you have a scandal of almost biblical proportions. As Whitney Houston said, we need to see receipts. But if Spence-Jones turns out to be guilty, she will have delivered the ultimate slap in the face to the people who elected her.
Number one: Katherine Fernandez-Rundle. In her public statements announcing the charges against Spence-Jones, the Miami-Dade state attorney admitted that while investigators secured much of their case in September, they waited until after the election to announce the charges so as not to “interfere with the political process” (a point reiterated to me by Joe Centorino, who heads the state attorney’s public corruption unit.) The commissioner was taken into custody 24 hours after being sworn in, adding to the drama. That’s great for Fernandez-Rundle and her P.R. team; awful for the voters of District 5, who were denied important information that could have informed their decisions. How many more might have voted had they known? How many might have voted differently? Even if the results would have been exactly the same, it isn’t the Miami-Dade state attorney’s job to decide what voters need or deserve to know. Ironically, the election Fernandez-Rundle sought not to “influence” has now been nullified instead. You’re welcome, District 5.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign.