By Sam Bojarski
Last month, Marie Woodson won her Democratic primary bid for Florida House District 101 by a narrow four-point margin. The Hollywood, Florida, resident called her victory a testament to what hard work can accomplish, regardless of one’s circumstances.
“I’m creating a path for young men and women coming up, to let them know that anything is possible when you put hard work into it,” said Woodson, a Port-de-Paix, Haiti native, of her Aug. 18 victory. “It wasn’t an easy beginning for me.”
Woodson, 60, knows what it feels like to struggle as a new American, she said. When she came to the United States in 1981, she worked as a social worker’s aide by day, earning $445 bi-weekly, and attended Miami-Dade College at night.
But Woodson would work her way up, spending 35 years in Miami-Dade County government. At one point, she oversaw social services for the largest such county department in Florida.
After retiring in 2018, Woodson threw her hat back into politics. In August, she bested two challengers in the Democratic primary with 37% of the vote. One of those challengers, West Park Vice Mayor Brian Johnson, had the endorsement of outgoing Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, who is facing term limits.
In the general election Nov. 3, Woodson faces Republican Vincent Parlatore. If she wins, as expected in her heavily Democratic district, Woodson will become the only Haitian-American from Broward County in the Florida House.
But Woodson isn’t taking anything for granted, continuing to campaign hard.
And that’s her way — given Woodson’s long journey from her home in northern Haiti to Tallahassee, the seat of the Florida House of Representatives in northern Florida.
A schooling detour leads to Florida
Born to Raphael and Adrienne Vital, Marie Paule Vital began public service early in her childhood as a teacher to local children, whom her parents taught at their informal school inside the family’s home. By teaching these children, whose parents could not afford to pay school fees, the Vitals passed on the value of hard work, self-respect and giving back to their daughter.
Being a bright child, her parents encouraged young Marie to study medicine. During those early years, Woodson recalls, one unforgettable lesson from her father was: “When you make it to the top, always take someone along with you.”
But during the corrupt Duvalier years, Woodson said, she did not have the family connections in the government to pursue a medical degree. Her future in medicine looked bleak.
Undaunted, Raphael Vital, who owned a welding business, helped his daughter obtain a visa to America for a better shot at a career. And in 1981, at age 21, Woodson flew to Florida, where she stayed with an uncle.
Soon after, Woodson enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College ‒ the school’s former name ‒ and earned an associate’s degree in public administration. Later, Woodson would earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Florida International University and a master’s in public administration management from St. Thomas University.
But in those early days, Woodson toiled as a social worker’s aide for Miami-Dade County. Due to her lack of English, she said she often feared answering the phone.
One colleague, a fellow Haitian named Myrtho Chery, took Woodson under her wing. She helped her navigate the job and the new language.
“That I will never forget,” said Woodson, who added that she frequently talks about Chery at public speaking engagements.
With hard work, dedication and commitment, Woodson moved up.
“If you stay the course, you do the work, you surround yourself with good people, anything is possible,” she said.
During her 35 years with Miami-Dade County, the possibilities opened up for Woodson to work on affordable housing, social services, early childhood education, mental health and substance abuse. In her last 15 years with the county, she held such executive positions as division manager, division director and assistant department director.
Just before retirement, Woodson oversaw the substance abuse division, and finance for the county’s school readiness programs and voluntary pre-kindergarten providers.
Marie met her husband Robert Woodson, 59, in college. The couple married in 1986 and has lived in Broward County for more than 25 years. They have two children: Kelly Woodson and son Bradley Woodson, 30.
“She’s still the same person in terms of her giving and caring,” Robert Woodson said. “It’s always been about helping others.”
Launching a campaign — online and offline
Woodson bid adieu to Miami-Dade County in March 2018. By the fall, she was calling her daughter Kelly Woodson, who was in Washington. D.C., for college, to share her plans.
“She always had said she wanted to run for office,” said Kelly Woodson, 20, a Catholic University student. “I wasn’t that surprised [she] wanted to run. That’s in her blood.”
Through social media and connections with former high school classmates, Kelly Woodson helped raise awareness of her mother’s campaign among young adults in Broward County.
To reach Haitian voters, Marie Woodson made the rounds via media outlets such as Island TV, based in North Miami, through phone calls in Haitian Creole and visits to area churches.
Barbara Miller, a political consultant, said she was impressed when Marie Woodson came to her already bearing key endorsements from political leaders in Miami-Dade. She then racked up support in Broward too, including from commissioners in Hollywood and nearby Miramar.
Miller credits her client’s community involvement as a factor in gaining these endorsements. Marie Woodson formerly chaired the Miami-Dade County Commission for Women. She currently serves as board chair of the Miami-based Family Action Network Movement (FANM), is vice president for the Haitian-American Democratic Club of Broward County and is the Broward regional director for the Haitian-American Democratic Caucus of Florida.
“When she started out, she was knocking on doors,” Miller said. “If you met her, she was so charismatic that you wanted to help her.”
With COVID-19 striking in March, the campaign strategy shifted to phone banking, and radio and newspaper advertising. In addition, the on-the-ground efforts of the candidate’s family and volunteers helped her secure the primary.
Marie Woodson now has nearly $104,000 in her campaign coffers, compared to less than $1,000 for Parlatore. Since House District 101 has a 44-point voter registration advantage for Democrats, she is expected to go all the way to Tallahassee.
Once there, the candidate plans to focus on fixing Florida’s unemployment system to avoid the type of processing backlog the state has faced with the pandemic. She plans to fight for a statewide minimum wage increase to $15 per hour and supports the Sadowski trust funds to build affordable housing for vulnerable Floridians.
Marie Woodson also wants to see a ban on qualified immunity for Florida police, prohibitions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants and new criteria for police selection and training. Her healthcare priorities include expanding Medicaid coverage, ensuring access to mental health treatment and bringing resources to her district.
Marie Woodson also vowed to represent the people of her district over special interests.
“It was never about me, and it will never be about me,” she said. “To me, it’s about who can you touch, who can you help, what can you do to make lives better.”