|Power in Numbers|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer|
A plan to politically divide Miami’s Upper Eastside has united residents in opposition
For 16 years Miami’s Upper Eastside neighborhoods have been represented by one city commissioner. Now that may change.
The Miami City Commission will soon be redrawing the boundaries of five commission districts that divide the Magic City. Among the proposals made in a 105-page report prepared by consultant Miguel De Grandy is removing Shorecrest, Palm Grove, and the western half of the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District from District 2 transferring the neighborhoods to District 5.
The main reason for this is simple: Federal law requires that Miami’s five commission districts be roughly equal in population. District 2, where the Upper Eastside is located, has too many people. Neighboring District 5, which includes the impoverished neighborhoods of Overtown, Liberty City, and Little Haiti, has too few.
But Upper Eastside activists say they don’t want to be divided. Instead they’re demanding that the entire area either remain in District 2 or be incorporated into District 5. “We are a united in solidarity as community of interest,” says Ken Jett, president of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association, “and we want to stay together.”
Dozens of speakers of various socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds said the same thing during a workshop held on February 21 at Legion Memorial Park’s community center, attended by more than 100 Upper Eastside residents. Their primary concern is that a divided Upper Eastside, a string of communities straddling Biscayne Boulevard from 36th to 87th streets between Biscayne Bay and NE Fourth Court, will have a much weaker voice in either District 2 or District 5.
“It’s hard enough to have meetings with one commissioner, but two commissioners?” says Louis Bourdeau, president of the Bayside Residents Association. “I think that creates a lot of problems and, as an Upper Eastsider, I think we have to be in one district or the other.”
But the wishes of the Upper Eastside community don’t necessarily conform to the desires of Miami city commissioners, who are rushing to finalize their own districts’ borders in time for a potentially contentious city election on November 5. The election will likely include a showdown between Mayor Tomás Regalado, who is running for a second term, and his challenger, Commissioner Francis Suarez. District 5 Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones is also running for re-election, unless she’s barred from doing so by a lawsuit filed by her political adversary, Rev. Richard Dunn, who claims she’s already been term-limited.
Further complicating matters, Spence-Jones is suing the mayor, alleging that her arrest for corruption in 2009 was part of a plot orchestrated by Regalado and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to force her from office. (For more on that political drama, see “Magic City Madhouse,” page 22.)
The future shape of District 5 will likely influence Spence-Jones’s chances for re-election, should she be allowed to run, says Sean Foreman, assistant professor of political science at Barry University. “Her district is safer the way it’s drawn now,” he says.
But District 5, which now has a 75-percent black majority, can’t remain in its current form. That’s because District 5 has 16 percent fewer people than Miami’s other four districts. But District 2 -- an area that encompasses Miami’s most prosperous neighborhoods, including Coconut Grove, Midtown Miami, Edgewater, Brickell, the Upper Eastside, a portion of the Venetian Islands, and parts of downtown -- has 20 percent more people than the other districts. To achieve a balance, District 2 needs to shed about 16,500 people while District 5 must gain at least 12,800 residents.
That imbalance could be solved by simply placing the entire Upper Eastside and its 12,860 inhabitants inside District 5. But that would dilute the district’s black super majority, De Grandy says. The Shorecrest area north of 79th Street and Palm Grove west of Biscayne Boulevard have significant black populations, explains De Grandy, but “the demographics are remarkably different more on the eastern side of Biscayne Boulevard. The number of African Americans lowers dramatically.”
For most of Miami’s 116-year existence, members of the city commission were elected by the municipality’s entire population. But in 1997, after a controversial Hispanic politician, Humberto Hernandez, won a commission seat that traditionally had been reserved for the black community, a voting-rights lawsuit was filed in federal court.
As a result, the city created a new system in which commissioners were elected within five distinct districts while an “executive mayor” with the power to veto legislation and hire and fire the city manager (with commission approval) was elected at-large. Under this scheme, three of the five districts were designed to have large Hispanic majorities, District 5 would represent the black communities, and District 2 was created as an Anglo stronghold.
Technically, racial gerrymandering is prohibited by federal law, but so is intentional dilution of minority communities. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Miami’s black population had shrunk to just 17 percent of the city’s total. Hispanics, on the other hand, made up 70 percent.
In his report, De Grandy points out that Hispanics tend to reject the preferred candidates of black voters. “Statistical models indicate that in the 2010 general election, [U.S. Senate candidate] Kendrick Meek received nearly zero percent of the Hispanic vote while garnering nearly 100 percent of the black vote [in Miami],” he writes.
Miami’s black voters, according to De Grandy’s report, also cast 100 percent of their votes for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, for Dan Gelber for state attorney general in 2010, and for Alex Sink for governor in 2010.
In contrast, only 33 percent of Miami’s Hispanics voted for Obama in 2008 and 54 percent in 2012, 25 percent voted for Sink, and 22 percent voted for Gelber.
De Grandy declined to include recent local races in his report, owing to low voter turnout in the black community. However, Foreman is sure that without a black-majority district, there won’t be a black commissioner at city hall. “It’s pretty common in all levels of politics for people to vote for someone who looks like them,” Foreman tells the BT.
But Ken Jett of Shorecrest estimates that even after absorbing the entire Upper Eastside (which is 38-percent Hispanic, 30-percent black, and 28-percent Anglo), District 5 will still have a 67-percent black majority.
Adds Eileen Bottari, a Palm Grove homeowner for 30 years: “My definition of a majority has always been that, during an election, a majority is 50 percent plus 1. Why does District 5 need 70 percent?” That sentiment was expressed more pointedly at a community meeting on February 12, when several Upper Eastside residents speculated that Spence-Jones wouldn’t want the entire Upper Eastside because its residents might vote as a bloc and turn her out of office.
Spence-Jones didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story, but last month she said that placing the Upper Eastside in District 5 “creates a scenario that allows for another group to not have a voice.”
Cornelius Shiver, Spence-Jones’s chief-of-staff, insists his boss is keeping an open mind: “The District 5 commissioner has some interests in [ensuring] that the Haitian and African-American community is represented on the city commission, which goes without saying. But we’ll let the experts and consultants come back and we’ll see how the numbers play out.”
Robert Malone, president of the Hadley Park Homeowners Association in Liberty City, thinks that the Upper Eastside will be a welcome addition to District 5. “They’re well informed and they’re aggressive in terms of politics and I think we need that,” says Malone, who ran for District 5 commissioner in 2009. “We have some knuckleheads who continue to not do right by the community.”
Deidria Davis, an Overtown resident and member of the city’s Community Relations Board, is skeptical that the predominately middle-class Upper Eastside fits within District 5. “I’m not quite sure if it’s going to help the community,” she says.
But what if the Upper Eastside remains in District 2? De Grandy says he’ll then have to find other areas to put inside District 5. In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Spence-Jones said if the Upper Eastside wanted to “stay together,” De Grandy could find “another place to pick up people for me. The only place I could think of would be Midtown.”
Bottari says she asked Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, a Coconut Grove resident and the current representative of District 2, if he’d be willing to give up Midtown Miami in order to keep the entire Upper Eastside. Reports Bottari: “He said, ‘no.’” (Sarnoff did not return calls from the BT.)
Foreman believes there’s a certain amount of prestige that comes with having prosperous areas such as Midtown Miami in your district. “The larger your tax base…the greater your influence appears to be on the commission,” he says.
Some Upper Eastside residents have long felt neglected by District 2, an area that has been represented by a Coconut Grove resident since 1997. “There is a sentiment among some Upper Eastsiders that we’re the ugly stepchild here,” Jett says. “That we are the have-nots when it comes to District 2, that we are too far removed geographically and economically from Coconut Grove, that it’s easy to be lost.”
Jett clarifies that his homeowner association’s official position is that Shorecrest is willing to work with the commissioner of either district, just as long as the entire Upper Eastside is included in it. “I think politically, economically, and culturally we’ll be harmed if we’re split up,” Jett says.
Ironically, one of the directives to De Grandy was that, whenever possible, the districts should “keep neighborhoods and communities of interest intact.” Several Upper Eastside activists also complained to the city commission last month that they were not notified about workshops held last year. (The meetings on District 1 and District 2, held at city hall, drew no residents.) De Grandy maintains that federal law doesn’t require public hearings on redistricting.
Still, commissioners decided at their February 14 meeting to hold two more workshops on redistricting, the first being at Legion Park’s community center. A second workshop will be held at city hall in Coconut Grove on March 4 at 6:30 p.m.
Thereafter, the Miami City Commission will take up redistricting on March 14. De Grandy hopes that by mid-April the city will have a plan ready for the Miami-Dade Elections Department.
So far the commission hasn’t ordered De Grandy to prepare an alternative to the plan he already developed, which splits the Upper Eastside. However, Ken Jett is hopeful that De Grandy and city commissioners will reconsider. If not, he says, legal action is a possibility. “We’re not taking any options off the table,” he says.
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