This fall's midterm elections ushered in a new era for Miami politics: U.S. Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, once a big player in South Florida, came in dead last in a three-way Senate race against Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican Marco Rubio. And two black Republicans made big gains this November, winning both the lieutenant governor spot and a seat in Congress.
Meek, who was the go-to congressman on issues of special concern to the black community, including Haiti and the plight of Haitians, gave up his safe 17th Congressional District seat to run for the Senate. Now the cowboy-hat-loving Frederica Wilson, minority whip of the Florida State House, will replace him in Congress. Jennifer Carroll will become the first black female lieutenant governor in Florida, while the controversial Allen West, a Tea Party favorite, will take a seat in Congress.
Meek has been pushed to the sidelines.
"There is now a vacuum in terms of African-American leadership in South Florida," observes Joy-Ann Reid, a Miami Herald columnist, political analyst and editor of the Reid Report.
For more than a decade, Meek controlled the 17th District. The seat was first held by the much revered Carrie P. Meek, Kendrick's mother. When she chose not to seek re-election in 2003, her son stepped up and rose to national prominence. But this time around, blacks in Miami did not show up at the polls in the numbers necessary to propel him to the top — or at least give him a chance at winning. Nor did the Democratic Party leadership do much to help him out in what turned out to be a highly contentious race against a Tea Party favorite and a moderate Republican governor-turned-independent. (President Bill Clinton reportedly urged Meek to drop out of the race; Rubio won.)
Still, says Reid, Meek never really had a chance. "I'm not sure an African American who is not named Barack Obama could have won that race. I have to be honest. You can't ignore the race factor."
In racially stratified Miami, black politicians don't seem to carry much weight. In recent years, it seems, local black politicians have spent more time defending themselves against corruption allegations than focusing on the people's business. Such is the case of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, 43, beloved by her constituents despite her legal troubles regarding an alleged $25,000 bribe.
Which is too bad, when you consider how much Barack Obama's election in 2008 energized Miami's black community. Blacks make up just 22 percent of the population in this heavily Latino city, and with the presidential election, many residents, who had never bothered to vote before, proudly stood in long lines at the polls. After Obama's election, the electricity in the city was palpable. Two years later, on the main corridors of Little Haiti and Overtown and Liberty City, painted murals of the president abound. But that excitement has yet to translate to local politics.
Community leaders say that what is needed in Miami is more black participation in the political process. If blacks turn out at the polls in low numbers, it affects the community in many ways, none of it good, officials say. And black leaders then appear weak without the clear backing of their constituents.
Few Miami black politicians have the juice to take on the power role that Meek once played. Spence-Jones is one of the few with enough star power, but she is facing bribery and grand-theft charges.
By many accounts, Spence-Jones has done right by her community, bringing much-needed dollars and development. It's perhaps one reason that even as she faced charges of bribery — much of it playing out in the local press — she was still re-elected. Her victory forced Gov. Crist to again suspend her. He had already suspended her before her re-election.
Nor is she the only black Miami politico to face such charges. In recent years, local black politicians have spent much of their time in office fighting allegations of wrongdoing. One of the most notorious cases of alleged corruption was that of Miami-Dade Commissioner Arthur Teele. He committed suicide in July 2005, after an investigation and trial led then-Gov. Jeb Bush to remove him from office.
Teele was convicted of corruption and making threats against a police officer, but the charges were overturned on appeal almost two years after his death.
Reid says the rise of black Republicans is certainly the Miami story that will play out in the years ahead. West has already caused rifts with fellow black politicians in Washington by criticizing the Congressional Black Caucus. Another darling of the Tea Party movement, West is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. His 22nd Congressional District includes parts of Palm Beach County.
In an interview with Fox News following his election, West said he would join the CBC despite his misgivings with the group as an organization that promotes welfare programs and dependence on government.
"The Congressional Black Caucus cannot continue to be a monolithic voice that promotes these liberal social welfare policies and programs that are failing in the black community, that are preaching victimization and dependency, that's not the way that we should go," West told Fox News. "And those are not the types of principles that my mother and father raised me with in the inner city of Atlanta."
With Wilson, Carroll and West taking office and the impending trial of Spence-Jones, Florida can expect to have a place of prominence on the national political stage, the good and the bad playing out. If nothing else, the CBC meetings just got interesting.
Michael Ottey is a freelance editor and writer based in Miami. Follow him on Twitter.