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Caribbean Community is Gaining Political Clout

By Natalie P. McNeal

Miami Herald, August 2001


After growing its roots in small businesses and home ownership, Broward County's Caribbean community is working hard to branch into politics.
And it seems like that effort is gaining ground. At its second annual Community Builders Luncheon last month, the Caribbean-American Democratic Club landed potential gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as the keynote speaker. Politicians from across the county, of all ethnic backgrounds and races, attended.
Some Caribbean-American politicians who have won elected office are Lauderdale Lakes Councilwoman Hazelle Rogers, Lauderdale Lakes Mayor Sam Brown and Miramar City Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman.
"They work here. They pay taxes. They have children going to the schools here. It's imperative that they get involved in the political process,'' Salesman said.
"Washington and Tallahassee care about the voting numbers. If you are not involved in the process, Washington and Tallahassee will not be responsive to the community. That's a fact.''
The impact of Caribbean Americans is apparent in the service industry, mortgage companies, import-export businesses and take-out restaurants. But making money is not enough, many say.
"It's evolving,'' said Rogers, who is from Jamaica, in an earlier interview. ``One of our major concerns is to get people politically motivated. The emphasis is so much on economic development that we forget there is a link between economics and politics.''
Some credit the push toward politics to November's election fiasco. Others say it's been the hurdles some have faced in trying to win government contracts. Others say the growing interest in politics is just a natural progression as Caribbean people settle into life in the United States.
"I don't believe anyone sat down and said, `It's my turn now,''' said Eric Hammond, who ran for the City Council in Plantation this year and lost. ``It's based on our background and upbringing. We want the so-called American dream.''
In addition, Caribbean-American numbers are growing. Broward County's West Indian community nearly tripled in the last decade to more than 154,000, according to the U.S. Census. In 2000, West Indians made up nearly half the county's total black community -- about 47 percent, up from 29 percent in the 1990 Census. Many of the communities are based in Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Lauderhill, Lauderdale Lakes and Plantation. Caribbeans include Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Haitians and Guyanese.
The numbers for the Community Builders Luncheon are growing also. Last year's luncheon, which was during an election year, drew about 150 people. But this year, about 375 people packed the event.
Very few politicians, both Caribbean and non-Caribbean alike, say they are specifically targeting the Caribbean vote. But it is evident that some are paying attention.
"I noticed over the year that they've had more people come to their luncheon. It's important to attend,'' said state Rep. Ken Gottlieb, D-Miramar. ``The community is organizing and it must be growing.''
Gottlieb says that he likes to go to different events but he hasn't organized specific affairs aimed at currying the Caribbean demographic, or any other demographic.
"I have small town hall meetings where I meet with people in different geographic locations, but I haven't targeted any meetings for any specific group of people,'' Gottlieb said. ``The issues are all the same, better schools better healthcare. . . . These are all issues that are important to everyone.''
Attorney John Bowman, a candidate for circuit court judge, stationed himself in the foyer of the banquet hall and passed out campaign material at the luncheon.
"It's much more important to have people see my face as opposed to getting a postcard,'' Bowman said. "I just don't want to be a sound bite.''
The awardees as the luncheon were a diverse group: state Rep. Philip Brutus, D-North Miami, who is Haitian American, and Miriam Oliphant, Broward County supervisor of elections, who is African American. In addition, WAVS 1170, a Caribbean radio station, was recognized for its Open Line Program along with WPLG TV 10 for its editorials. Plus, the group honored the Tom Joyner Morning Show.
"Those are our community leaders, the ones who have gone to bat for us,'' said Caribbean-American Democratic Club President Pat Amiel-Young. ``Those are our trailblazers. We reach out to anyone who takes the community seriously and tries to make a difference.''
In her Aug. 26 speech, Reno dealt with themes such as schools, the environment and healthcare, but she also touched on key topics for Caribbeans such as immigration. And she even threw in racial profiling. She also complimented the community on the successes of its children.
"I suspect the Caribbean-American community knows what its children are doing because you see the examples so many of you have set,'' she said.
Reno told a story about her father, who came to the states as a 12-year-old immigrant, and the trials and successes he endured as a new American.
Reno also spoke about the need for a system that would allow undocumented women who are victims of domestic violence to receive justice, without fear of deportation. She also assured the group that although the state does not have jurisdiction over immigration issues, the state can let its residents know about developments at the federal level.
Amiel-Young says that the Caribbean-American Democratic Club does not endorse candidates. The club is trying to show the community how politics in America work.
"All we do is educate our community so that they can make an informed decision,'' Amiel-Young said. ``Some people won't even talk politics, they think it's a bad word. They associate it with violence. It's our job to educate people about the process here. Things are different here.''
Reno is the highest-ranking governmental official the group has received so far.
"We haven't had the president yet,'' Amiel-Young said, with only a hint of smile in her voice. "That will probably be the next step.''




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