By Sam Bojarski
As Daniella Levine Cava took her oath of office to become Miami-Dade County mayor on Nov. 17, one person looking forward to her four-year term was Raymond François, director of a 250-member taxi drivers nonprofit alliance. Levine Cava has promised to help François in his fight to level the regulatory playing field between ride-sharing companies and taxis.
“She’s going to work together with the Association to see how we can fix that,” said François, a Miami taxi driver for 20 years and leader of the New Vision Drivers Association of Florida, which endorsed Levine Cava.
Throughout her 40 years living in South Florida, Levine Cava has developed key relationships with Haitian-American leaders like François. Her deep ties to the community — some cultivated since the early 1980s, others created during her last six years representing District 8 on the county commission — helped Levine Cava defeat her opponent by eight points on Nov. 3.
With the decisive win, Levine Cava, 65, was sworn in as the county’s first Democratic mayor since 2000, its first female mayor and its first Jewish mayor. She vowed to maintain those deep ties with Haitian-Americans through service.
“That will be one of my priorities, to help the Haitian community, as well as continue to be close to the community,” said Levine Cava, who resides in Palmetto Bay.
In addition to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and long-standing issues like affordable housing, Levine Cava said she plans to support small businesses, a key economic engine in Haitian enclaves.
“The small business community is particularly robust in the Black community overall and in the Haitian community,” she said. “So I have pledged to expand my efforts around small business incubation and growth support.”
A long way back
Levine Cava, a New York City native, moved to South Florida in 1981 to finish law school at the University of Miami. At the time, hundreds of Haitian refugees were arriving on Miami’s shores each week, fleeing violence in Haiti. Levine Cava began to advocate for them, in her role as an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami and as a volunteer with the Haitian Refugee Center.
That’s when she first met people like Marleine Bastien, the long-time advocate for Haitian immigrants.
“She’s been on the ground like me,” Bastien said. “She was always there, always. Even if we don’t invite her she calls and says, ‘can I come?’”
After working with Levine Cava during the 1980s, Bastien agreed to become a founding board member of the nonprofit Human Services Coalition, now Catalyst Miami, which Levine Cava founded in 1996. The organization advances economic mobility for Miami-Dade residents through advocacy, as well as health and financial wellness programs.
“Many of the people who are now leaders in the Haitian community started their careers with me and my nonprofit,” Levine Cava said.
The list of those Haitian-American leaders includes Rasha Cameau, director of the North Miami Community Redevelopment Agency, Paola Pierre, chairwoman of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce of Florida, and Santra Denis, interim executive director of the Miami Workers Center and founder of Avanse Ansanm.
In 2000, Levine Cava worked closely with Gepsie Metellus to found the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, which Metellus now leads. Two years later, Levine Cava said, Catalyst Miami and Sant La partnered to form the Prosperity Campaign to help low-income Floridians access benefits.
More recently, Levine Cava has joined efforts to advocate for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) protections for Haitian-Americans, Bastien said.
As a public official, Levine Cava continued her advocacy for TPS, co-sponsoring a 2017 county resolution to request an 18-month extension of TPS protections for Haitians.
Levine Cava’s commitment to immigrants, including Haitians, is also underscored by her efforts to found the Office of New Americans of Miami-Dade, a public-private partnership that ensures the integration of immigrants, in 2015.
Levine Cava earned mayoral campaign endorsements from a long list of elected officials that included County Commissioner Jean Monestime, North Miami Vice Mayor Alix Desulme and North Miami Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime.
Going forward, the new mayor has pledged to address numerous issues impacting Haitian-Americans, such as high unemployment from service sector job losses.
Levine Cava said recovering from the pandemic is her top priority. In September, she released a recovery plan that includes redirecting economic development money to small businesses and instituting data sharing to inform reopenings.
As a commissioner, Levine Cava helped oversee the distribution of $474 million in CARES Act money from the federal government. Of this total, $10 million was allocated for taxi and limousine drivers impacted by the pandemic, a move that Levine Cava said she supported. François estimated that 60% of Miami-Dade’s nearly 6,000 taxi drivers are Haitian.
Before year’s end, Levine Cava said she will ensure that the remaining CARES Act funds are properly distributed. To further stimulate the economic recovery, the mayor also said she wants to expand her Accelerate South Dade small business incubator to the entire county.
The expansion “will be a way to assist the small businesses [with] technical support, marketing assistance, access to capital,” Levine Cava said.
With the recent job losses, existing crises like affordable housing have become more pronounced. In neighborhoods like Little Haiti, the cost of living has increased despite the pandemic. Realtor websites put the cost of a one-bedroom apartment at $1,435, a 20% increase from 2019.
The availability of land at a relatively high elevation has spurred new development in Little Haiti that is forcing out long-time residents, as climate gentrification sets in.
Preserving the identity of neighborhoods like Little Haiti is critical to Miami-Dade’s economy because ethnic neighborhoods attract both local and out-of-town visitors, Levine Cava said.
“Unique identity is really a selling point, and we have to work hard to protect that,” said Levine Cava. “It’s incumbent upon us to not have development that removes our unique culture and decimates current residents.”
As a commissioner, Levine Cava took steps to address the affordable housing crisis. County commissioners adopted her proposal to require that community redevelopment agencies retain affordable housing units in their development plans.
As mayor, Levine Cava plans to work with city mayors to guide development and preserve affordable housing, through the Miami-Dade County League of Cities.
To fight climate change, she has sponsored legislation to improve water testing near public beaches and help low-income homeowners invest in energy efficiency. Her strong stance on climate change earned her the nickname “water warrior.”
While passionate about climate personally, people like François take comfort in knowing that she will listen to all sides on key issues in her new role.
“Hopefully she’s going to govern in the center, not to the left, not to the right,” François said of Levine Cava. “She cannot satisfy everybody, [but] hopefully she can listen to every group, every community, in order to work together with them.”