By Sam Bojarski
As the clock winds down to Nov. 3, candidates in the race for Miami-Dade County Commission District 3 are making their final pitches.
Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the nonprofit Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center,
The contentious, down-to-the-wire campaign has been characterized in the last days by negative ads from Hardemon and last-minute appeals to voters around the diverse district comprising seven different cities and more than 109,100 registered voters.
During a Souls to the Polls event Sunday, Metellus said she feels confident heading into Election Day, despite the ugly campaign tactics employed by her opponent.
“The attacks tell me that someone’s afraid,” said Metellus, 60, who questioned why Hardemon has not campaigned on the merits of his own platform.
Hardemon has said his recent experience as a Miami Commissioner makes him the right choice.
“I’ve had the opportunity to really negotiate and play a monumental role in many of the projects that have made the news for Miami-Dade county, brought a lot of tourist attractions, large amounts of real estate,” Hardemon said, “and really got to tackle a lot of issues such as affordable housing, homelessness, redevelopment and even transportation.”
A contentious race
Both candidates come into the race entrenched in South Florida power circles, but in different ways.
Metellus, 60, is well-known among Haitians, power brokers and nonprofits, having founded and led Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center since 2000. Prior to founding Sant La, Metellus, a Haitian immigrant, worked for Miami-Dade Public Schools and Miami-Dade County government. The social services organization is now focused on a vision of a self-sufficient and integrated Haitian community, which requires partnerships with public and private organizations.
Where it matters most in the District 3 race however, with voters, Metellus may be suffering from lack of name recognition in the broader community.
Hardemon, 36, is entrenched in Miami politics through his family connections. He has raised more than $1.4 million as of early October — nearly six times as much as Metellus.
Derided by some as “Pay to Play Hardemon,” he has used negative and dubious campaign advertising to attack Metellus. In one television ad, Hardemon’s campaign accused Metellus of lying to the IRS about Sant La’s $120,000 intended donation to the Pierre Toussaint Center, for Hurricane Matthew relief.
Metellus vehemently rejects the accusation. In a video response posted on Facebook, she called the accusation baseless and said it illustrates “their inability to run on their own accomplishments.”
During an Oct. 27 press conference, she explained that the Pierre Toussaint Center was unable to serve as a fiscal agent and receive the funds for hurricane relief, so Sant La had to find other recipients for the money. Sant La then reversed the transaction on its IRS Form 990, where the donation was initially reported.
“It’s inaccurate that Sant La misused any of the funds,” said Miami-Dade District 2 Commissioner Jean Monestime during the news conference. “All of the funds have been disbursed and [are] helping the Haitian community.”
On Sunday, Metellus said she has spent the final days before the election visiting early voting locations in her district. The outpouring of support from the community in the face of the negative ads, she said, has been encouraging.
“I [continue to] take part, in spite of the ugliness of all this,” Metellus said, about her recent campaigning.
The last-minute burst of activity can only help. During early voting last week, a few voters at the Joseph Caleb Center in Brownsville said they chose Hardemon.
Mary Martin of Miami, said she chose Hardemon because she was familiar with his tenure on the Miami city commission. However, as she read more about Metellus afterward, she had second thoughts.
“I kind of said, ‘you know what, I should have voted for her,’” Martin, 60, said. “She promotes a lot of things for children and she makes sure seniors have [support].”
Issues on the ballot
District 3 comprises the northern reaches of Miami ‒ including Little Haiti ‒ as well as Brownsville, Military Trail Park, Biscayne Shores, Gardens Park and El Portal. Politically, voters of Haitian ancestry make up an estimated 28% of all voters in District 3.
“Affordability is an emergency,” Metellus said. “We have reached crisis proportions in the lack of affordable housing, whether as rental units or homeownership opportunities.”
Hardemon, meanwhile, touts his Miami commission experience. When it comes to COVID-19 relief he has cited the need to work collaboratively with cities, in order to coordinate aid money. Hardemon has also said he wants to incentivize investment in underserved neighborhoods, a strategy that includes revitalizing commercial corridors.
In terms of support from the area’s influential voices, The Miami Herald has endorsed Metellus’s candidacy, saying she has “earned a chance to be an elected public servant.”
Metellus has also racked up endorsements from current Miami-Dade commissioners, including Monestime, who is Haitian-American, Barbara Jordan, Sally Heyman and Edmonson.
“She has the vision and fortitude to tackle the most important issues in our community,” Edmonson said. “We need a commissioner we can trust to put the people first.”