By Sam Bojarski
Heading into the Nov. 3 election, Gepsie Metellus had some positive momentum in her campaign for Miami-Dade County Commission District. She had the ringing endorsement of the Miami Herald, and support from four current county commissioners, including the term-limited incumbent she sought to replace.
As executive director of the nonprofit Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, Metellus has led the social services agency to help tens of thousands of Haitians find gainful employment, access public benefits and integrate into the community since its inception in 2000. With that track record, the lifelong public servant appeared to have a good chance of winning a seat.
On Election Night, as Florida results rolled in, it became clear quickly that Metellus had been defeated. Opponent Keon Hardemon, 37, currently a city of Miami commissioner, captured 67% of the ballots cast, to her 33%.
“If I had to do it again, I would have hit [Hardemon] with the nastiness that he hit me with,” Metellus said in the days after the election. “I sort of stayed away from [that], because I wanted to run a race to elevate the issues that are important to District 3 residents.”
Despite her deep community ties, Hardemon’s $1.4 million war chest and name recognition led to the decisive win, according to Metellus, her team, and independent observers.
“Hardemon could be viewed as a pseudo-incumbent. [He] was still in office in a different jurisdiction capable of fundraising and accessing people that I could not,” said Metellus, 60. “That, coupled with their propensity for nasty [campaigning], that really did me in.”
Hardemon did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Too late a start, too little funding
Maxo Sinal, Metellus’ campaign manager, said timing was a factor in the outcome. Metellus launched her campaign in March, but doing so earlier would have given her a chance to raise more money.
While Metellus got the votes to force a runoff after the August primary, the 28% margin that separated her and Hardemon did not bode well for her. Sinal said if the results had been closer, more donors would have felt confident enough to support Metellus’s campaign in the leadup to Nov. 3.
By early October, Hardemon had raised more than $1.4 million to Metellus’s $290,000.
Metellus focused on addressing issues like affordable housing, public transportation and climate change in her campaign materials and appearances.
Hardemon used his campaign funds to attack Metellus almost immediately with political ads that accused her of lying to the IRS about a donation to help victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. The Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, which was featured in the ads as the intended recipient, has called the Hardemon accusations inaccurate. Sitting county commissioners also said the ads were false.
Metellus held a news conference to explain the nature of the donation, but such one-time responses couldn’t hold up to the barrage of ads from Hardemon, to sway voters.
“We started extremely, extremely late,” said Sinal. “Keon had all the advantages, not only money-wise, but also he had support [from] people who should have or would have committed to Gepsie.”
The name of the game
On top of Hardemon’s campaign funds, he had name recognition going back generations. His uncle, Roy Hardemon, represented Florida House District 108, a heavily Haitian enclave, from 2016 to 2018. Another uncle, Billy Hardemon, chairs an economic development nonprofit in Miami.
Going in, supporters of Metellus believed she could leverage her long-standing connections in the Haitian community to help win the election.
“The hope was that she was going to be able to pull her Haitian community and be able to pull votes away from [Hardemon] that he’s traditionally gotten,” said Francesca Menes, co-founder of The Black Collective, who helped promote Metellus during the campaign.
However, the Hardemon surname translated to significant support among both the African-American and Haitian communities.
Voting precinct data from Miami-Dade County show that in the Lemon City precinct in the heart of Little Haiti, Hardemon captured 609 votes. Metellus received 463. Hardemon also won all surrounding precincts to the west and south, with 63% of the vote or higher.
“It’s not just by accident that [Hardemon] ended up getting the bulk of the Haitian vote,” said Rulx “Ringo” Cayard, a Miami-based activist and entrepreneur. “She picked the wrong seat and the wrong race.”
The Hardemon family has a 40-year history of advocating for Haitian rights and acceptance, Cayard said. And as a City of Miami commissioner, Keon Hardemon actively sought official recognition for the Little Haiti neighborhood, which it received in May of 2016. Cayard said the official designation for the long-established neighborhood gave Haitians a sense of belonging.
Sinal acknowledges that Hardemon had an existing base of support in the Haitian community. But he said the candidate’s negative ad campaign, more than anything, repressed the vote in Haitian precincts.
“Name recognition within the Haitian community is one thing,” Sinal said about Metellus. “When you have a campaign that creates doubts about you, about your leadership, about your integrity, that’s something that will impact you in any race.”
Lower support in diverse district
District 3 is a sprawling area that encompasses a dozen northern neighborhoods in the City of Miami, as well as El Portal and Miami Shores. English, Haitian Kreyol and Spanish are common languages in the district. Metellus herself speaks these three languages, in addition to French.
Miami-Dade County figures show that District 3 has 111,860 voters, of which nearly 44% are Black, 34% are Hispanic, 14% are white and 8% identify as other. Haitian-Americans alone make up about 28% of voters in the district, according to a 2019 study.
African-American resident Mary Martin, 60, voted for Hardemon at the Joseph Caleb Center in Brownsville. She said she had only heard of Metellus’s work within the Haitian community, which influenced her vote.
“I felt like she should be multicultural, she should be for everybody,” Martin said after voting early on Oct. 28. “So that’s what swayed me, but I’ve heard she does some great things.”
Haitian-American candidates have routinely run in diverse electoral districts with success. For example, New York City Council Member Farah Louis won her May 2019 election to represent District 45, which contains a large Haitian, African-American and Orthodox Jewish population.
Some African-American leaders in Miami-Dade had no problem supporting Metellus, Sinal said. He cited the endorsements Metellus received from outgoing District 3 Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and District 1 Commissioner Barbara Jordan, both of whom are Black.
The Metellus campaign, however, concentrated its limited resources on voters who were less familiar with Hardemon. Sinal said he thought Metellus had a chance to win if she captured more than 75% of the Hispanic vote. They launched Spanish-language text messaging and phone-banking efforts. But financial pressures prevented the campaign from expanding these efforts and using other means, he said.
Meanwhile, Hardemon’s ads kept repeating its negative and inaccurate messaging via television, mail and radio.
Looking back, both Metellus and Menes acknowledged that the initial reluctance to attack Hardemon’s record hurt Metellus in her campaign.
“It would have been so easy for her to just create an ad and show the blight in the district,” said Menes. “[Miami District 5] has not evolved under Keon, it’s gotten worse.”