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Jul 08th
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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
June 2020

Keon Hardemon runs for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission

IElection_1n the nearly empty lobby of Miami City Hall, Commissioner Keon Hardemon wasn’t wearing a protective face mask, but he was decked out in a sharp-looking blue pinstriped suit and coral pink necktie as he stood before the window of the city clerk’s office. He was there to submit his resignation from office.

“I just discovered the letter I wrote to get on the planning and zoning board, from 2012,” Hardemon said with a smile as he handed his paperwork to city clerk Todd Hannon, who laughed.

Such was the scene on May 15, just a few minutes past noon. Hardemon is running for a new office -- commissioner of Miami-Dade County’s District 3 -- and state law requires that any elected official wishing to run for another office submit his resignation ten days before the qualifying period, when candidates make their candidacy official. In the case of the competitive August 18 election for Miami-Dade mayor and seven of the county’s 13 commission seats, that period begins on May 26 and ends on June 9.

Although Hardemon’s three-paragraph resignation letter didn’t name a specific date for him to step down, it will take effect when the county commission reconvenes in the fall. That means, win or lose, and with a year left on his term as a Miami City Commissioner for District 5, he must leave by November 17.

Election_2_mapSo why is Hardemon taking such a gamble? After all, he’s chairman of the Miami City Commission, chairman of the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, and he counts the city’s executive mayor, Francis Suarez, as a frequent ally. Hardemon says he wants to “bring a new way of thinking” to county hall, including robust advocacy of economic development in impoverished communities.

“I want to see the things that are positive in Miami’s District 5 to happen in Miami-Dade County,” he tells the BT.

Audrey Edmonson, who has been Miami-Dade County’s District 3 commissioner for 16 years, and can’t run again due to term limits, doesn’t think Hardemon is the right person for the job. So she’s backing Tisa McGhee, an associate professor of social work at Barry University in Miami Shores and a member of the county’s Economic Development Action Committee.

“I just want someone who has the best interest in their community,” Edmonson says.

On the day Hardemon was submitting his letter of eventual resignation, he didn’t seem too disturbed that Edmonson was endorsing his opponent. “Commissioner Edmonson has the right to support whoever she wants,” he told the BT, later, adding: “I think we have different visions. The vision I have for my community, a lot of it I have gotten done. I have made tremendous changes in my neighborhood. Commissioner Edmonson has now had 16 years to make her vision a reality, and she will be retiring.”

Edmonson and Hardemon have faced off before. In 2012, prior to running for the Miami City Commission, Hardemon, then a 29-year-old public defender, ran against Edmonson and garnered enough votes for a runoff with the incumbent commissioner. His campaign even received $5500 from billionaire Norman Braman during that contest. (For more on Braman’s conflict with Edmonson and other county commissioners, see “District 3: Will It Be a Norman Conquest?” August 2012.) Hardemon lost to Edmonson, but less than a year later he was elected to the city commission.

Election_3Edmonson, in explaining her opposition to Hardemon, doesn’t mention that 2012 election. Instead she brings up recent articles about the lobbying and political consulting activities of Hardemon’s aunt and uncle, Billy and Barbara Hardemon. “You’ve been reading all the newspapers? All of the items that have been coming out?” Edmonson asks the BT.

Those stories include an April 28 Florida Bulldog article, written by BT contributor Francisco Alvarado, about the City of Miami awarding $135,000 to the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., chaired by Billy Hardemon, and $250,000 to the Foundation of Community Assistance and Leadership (FOCAL), directed by Barbara Hardemon.

There have also been recent reports in the Miami Herald regarding the lobbying activities of Barbara Hardemon, whose clients include Miami Beckham United and Jungle Island developer ESJ Capital Partners. Barbara Hardemon was quoted in a March 2019 Herald article saying that she does lobby her nephew on behalf of her clients, and “that she has a legal right to do so.” (State law bans individuals from lobbying officials who are “immediate family,” or requires disclosure. However, “immediately family” is limited to “any parent, spouse, child, or sibling.”)

Keon Hardemon says the MLK Economic Development Corp. and FOCAL had been getting grants from the City of Miami, as well as Miami-Dade County and the Children’s Trust, long before he was elected to the city commission. (The MLK grant funded car purchases for impoverished families. The grant for FOCAL helped fund its afterschool and summer programs at Moore Park, near Liberty City.)

As for his aunt’s lobbying activities, Keon Hardemon declares, “Any legally registered lobbying that members of my family do is their business, not mine. I do not employ them or cause them to be employed. Neither do I receive any remuneration for their efforts.”

Election_4Chris Norwood, a political consultant and curator of the Hampton Art Lovers gallery in Overtown, says attacks on Hardemon’s aunt and uncle are unfair to the commissioner, whom he describes as someone who “came out of Liberty City” to go to college and become an attorney.

“I think, personally, it’s disrespectful,” Norwood says. “It overly simplifies, and tries to dilute the record of someone who has done nothing but fight to get where he is. I can give examples of 40 other people, other politicians, some of whom I know personally, who have relationships with a particular lobbyist or lobbying firms.”

But it isn’t just Edmonson who is uneasy with Hardemon. Gepsie Metellus, a prominent Haitian-American activist and co-founder of Sant La Haitian Community Center in North Miami, says she’s heard from District 5 residents who are disappointed with Hardemon’s tenure as a city commissioner. That’s why she’s also running for the District 3 county commission seat.

“There are so many people dissatisfied and disappointed in his leadership,” says Metellus, a Miami Shores resident, “and it was that dissatisfaction that drove me to decide to do this.”

Tisa McGhee, who resides in Edgewater, says she’s wanted to run for office for years but felt inspired to throw her hat in the ring following a conversation with Edmonson, whom she’s known for five years. As for Hardemon, McGhee says, “I think people are challenged by his record, the issues with his family, and I think his focus has been on just certain communities. And District 3 has a diverse set of constituents. I believe that everyone wants to be represented.”

Hardemon’s City of Miami district takes in a region of 47,410 voters that includes parts of Liberty City (where Hardemon lives), Overtown, Wynwood, Buena Vista, Little Haiti, and most of the Upper Eastside. More than half of its voters, 58.4 percent, are black. It’s also a place where real estate investment has been booming, particularly in Wynwood, but also increasingly in Little Haiti, Liberty City, and Overtown.

Election_5Miami-Dade County’s District 3 encompasses all of the City of Miami’s District 5, plus the Central Business District, Park West, Omni, the Venetian Islands, Edgewater, most of Allapattah, and the entire Upper Eastside. It also includes unincorporated neighborhoods like West Little River and Liberty City, as well as the municipalities of El Portal and Miami Shores.

The AmericanAirlines Arena, Museum Park, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the Stephen P. Clark Government Center (county hall), the deteriorating Miami-Dade Courthouse, HistoryMiami Museum, the MiamiCentral train station complex, the Wynwood Arts District, and the revamped Design District are all found in District 3.

So too are 105,679 voters, 45.4 percent of whom are black, 32.9 percent Hispanic, and 13.8 percent Anglo. Although the Miami-Dade Elections Department does not have economic data on these voters, District 3 is a mixture of impoverished and wealthy areas.

As of deadline, seven people had signed up to run for the District 3 seat. In addition to Hardemon, McGhee, and Metellus, the other individuals who have opened campaign accounts are Liberty City activist and former Miami Times columnist Brian Dennis; A Leap of Faith Foundation founder Monester D. Lee-Kinsler; former police officer Eddie Lewis; and secretary specialist Temidayo Olukemi Ogedengbe.

Chris Norwood says he respects Metellus and McGhee, but believes that Keon Hardemon will likely emerge as the victor, thanks in large part to his status as a Miami City Commissioner.

“Keon Hardemon is the de facto incumbent,” Norwood explains, adding that the District 3 contest is “Hardemon’s race to lose.”

Hardemon comes from an influential family in Liberty City. His aforementioned aunt and uncle, Billy and Barbara Hardemon, consult for politicians wishing to win African-American votes in Liberty City and Overtown. Barbara Hardemon also chairs two political committees -- One Miami-Dade and Improve Miami -- which have raised a total of $496,450 since last summer. Another uncle, Roy Hardemon, was elected in 2016 to the Florida House from District 108, which overlaps Miami-Dade’s District 3. Defeated by attorney Dotie Joseph in 2018, Roy Hardemon is running to regain his state legislative seat this August.

A lot of the Hardemon family’s clout comes from decades of civic activism in the inner city, Norwood says. “They’re also politically active, and they help people get elected,” he adds. “I don’t find anything wrong with that.”

So far, Keon Hardemon has raised more campaign money than his all his competitors combined. Besides the nearly half-million dollars in Barbara Hardemon’s political committees, candidate Hardemon has $290,525 in his campaign account.

The sibling executives of Jorge and José Mas, their company MasTec, and associates gave some $62,000 to Hardemon’s campaign and his aunt’s two political committees. The Mas brothers are major partners in Miami Beckham United, which is negotiating with the City of Miami for a 99-year lease that will enable it to build a stadium on the city-owned Melreese Golf Course.

Other sibling contributors are Michael and Ronald Simkins, who have given around $61,000. The brothers own 10.8 acres of land in Park West near the 11th Street entertainment district, where they are weighing development options. They’ve also invested millions of dollars buying and improving properties in neighboring Overtown. (See “Overtown Gets the Fever,” January 2018.)

Developer Michael Swerdlow gave Barbara Hardemon’s One Miami-Dade committee $20,000. Swerdlow and his partner Alben Duffie (who gave at least $7000 in bundled checks to Hardemon’s campaign and One Miami-Dade) hope to develop a parcel of land owned by the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency as a mixed-use project with 556 apartments, a Target, and a supermarket.

One Miami-Dade also received $42,500 in contributions from interests involved in Little Haiti’s Magic City Innovation District, including a $20,000 contribution from The Plaza Group, $10,000 from Mike Zoi’s Motorsport Network LLC, $5000 from Los Angeles-based investor Neil Kadisha, and $7500 from companies affiliated with Bob Zangrillo’s Dragon Global.

During negotiations with the developers of the proposed 8.2 million-square-foot Innovation District, Hardemon presented a last-minute deal that allowed the developers to avoid including onsite affordable and workforce housing in exchange for them donating $31 million to the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust, a board that will be governed by four appointees of the District 5 commissioner plus a city manager appointee. Although approved by the city commission in June 2019, the controversial project is stuck in litigation. (See “Repeal of Special Area Plans Heads to City Commission,” March 2020.)

The Havenick family, which owns Magic City Casino in Little Havana and aspires to open a jai alai fronton and poker room in Edgewater, gave Hardemon’s campaign and the two political committees $13,000. (See “Wagering on the Future,” April 2020.)

Hardemon’s campaign and the One Miami-Dade political committee also received $17,000 from Russell Faibisch and Adam Russakoff, owners of the Ultra Music Festival, an event loved by electronic music enthusiasts but despised by many downtown residents.

Restaurateur Steve Perricone and his business partner, attorney Jay Solowsky, have given $12,000 to the Hardemon election effort. Solowsky’s friend and law associate, former Miami city commissioner and current lobbyist Marc Sarnoff, is connected to $10,500 in contributions toward Hardemon and his aunt’s two political committees via Sarnoff’s own political committee (Truth Is the Daughter of Time), his law firm (Shutts & Bowen), and his limited liability company (Sarnoff Solutions).

Other big contributors to the Hardemon election bid include $12,000 from lobbyist Eric Zichella, $12,000 from Atlantic Pacific Communities, $10,000 from the Cornerstone Group, $10,000 from education entrepreneurs David and Leila Centner, $10,000 from attorney Lewis Eidson, $10,000 from Jeremy Cook’s Strategic Properties Management, and $10,000 from teacher Silvia Martinez.

Building Miami’s Future, a political committee chaired by Adler Group senior vice president Steven Brownstein, a company negotiating to redevelop the city’s Miami Riverside Center, gave One Miami-Dade $10,000. The Floridians for a Strong 67, chaired by former state representative Erik Fresen (who served 60 days in jail and a year probation for tax crimes), gave One Miami-Dade $10,000 as well.

In contrast, McGhee has so far raised $57,386. Of that amount, McGhee loaned her campaign $14,000. Subsidiaries of Deco Capital Group, which hopes to build a mixed-use project in Allapattah, contributed $9000. Florida East Coast Industries, which owns MiamiCentral depot and runs the Brightline train, gave $4000.

Metellus’s campaign gathered $36,092 plus another $5000 via the political committee People for Community First, with most of her other contributions being under $1000. Lewis has a campaign treasury of $11,607. The remaining three candidates reported a combined $1016.

Unlike his competitors, Hardemon has been raising money for his county commission run since May 2019, about seven months before COVID-19 was discovered. But now even real estate developers, frequently the biggest campaign contributors in South Florida races, are running low on funds owing to a hemorrhaging economy, says publicist and lobbyist Seth Gordon. The August election isn’t anyone’s priority either, he adds.

“It’s really bad timing for other people launching campaigns right at a time when no one gives a hoot. Have you heard about the world coming to an end?” Gordon asks.

Nevertheless, Metellus, who declared her candidacy three months ago, still managed to raise $24,972 in March and $11,120 in April. McGhee, who started fundraising in January, took in $19,520 during those two months. In contrast, Hardemon collected $11,300 in March and $0 in April, while the Barbara Hardemon-chaired political committees gathered $28,500 during those two months.

Hector Roos, another political consultant, thinks campaign money won’t make much of a difference in a county commission race. “The more money a candidate has, the much more diminished the return. That’s true of everybody,” Roos says. “All of the candidates have a chance.”

That’s especially true if the District 3 race remains crowded. Against six other opponents, Roos says, there’s little chance that Hardemon will be able to win more than 50 percent of the vote on August 18, and will be forced into a runoff on November 3, when the presidential race will be on the ballot. “There are not enough votes in the City of Miami side of the district to allow Hardemon to win on the first round,” he maintains.

Chris Norwood agrees that a runoff is likely and believes it will be between Hardemon and Metellus. That’s because both names are more widely known among District 3 voters than the other candidates. Plus Metellus is generally respected among Haitian Americans and Democrats. “I think she appeals to a progressive block of voters, period,” Norwood says. “She has a name and reputation that go back for a very long time.”

But Tisa McGhee is also active in the community. She has volunteered in Overtown and Liberty City on behalf of Barry University’s Center for Human Rights and Justice. She’s also done extensive work in those neighborhoods for her previous job at the Children’s Trust.

Nevertheless, Norwood says Tisa McGhee’s name is still largely unknown to voters, in spite of Edmonson’s endorsement, and that’s especially important in a race where most people will vote using mail-in ballots prior to August 18 election day.

“I think due to COVID-19, the person who is at the greatest disadvantage is Ms. McGhee,” Norwood says. “Her name recognition is what she has to improve.”

Edmonson counters that McGhee is making good progress. “She’s already introduced herself to leaders of each community,” Edmonson says. “And you have to realize as well, the Upper Eastside, Venetian Causeway, Morningside, Belle Meade, El Portal -- I don’t think they’ll be voting for Keon Hardemon. They read the papers.”

But Hardemon is confident he’ll get support from voters throughout District 3, particularly in Miami. He notes that he helped push through the $400 million Miami Forever Bond, which included an $80 million earmark for affordable housing throughout the city. Hardemon says he spearheaded the redevelopment of the Town Park communities in Overtown, and helped stop an unpopular mega-project from being built adjacent to Legion Park in the Upper Eastside.

He also developed a meal voucher program that helped distribute 35,000 meals to those “negatively affected by COVID-19.” And while many affordable housing activists criticize the Magic City Innovation District deal, Hardemon is sure the $31 million commitment from the developers, overseen by a board of “community stakeholders,” will provide more affordable housing and economic development in Little Haiti.

“My record,” he says, “is unprecedented and a noteworthy accomplishment.”

 

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