State District 108 winner bound to breach barrier
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
MIAMI -- Someone is cooking beans and rice and pork with a little onion. From the smell of things, the cook is frying batter-laden plantains to a golden brown as well.
The dueling aromas drift, spicy and sweet, along the second-floor landing at a small apartment building along NE 54th Street.
From this urban perch, it is possible to see eight black chickens clucking in the yard next door, and the nearby trash bin long past the point of overflowing, and the two small Haitian boys romping in their underwear, their coffee-colored skin stark against the white cotton.
Dusk and dinnertime have settled over Little Haiti, the spiritual and geographic center of Florida's Haitian immigrant population -- and a community that cannot wait until Nov. 7.
On that day, many of them hope, Phillip J. Brutus will become the first Haitian-American elected to the Florida Legislature. The 42-year-old lawyer has been building his political resume for years, and many Haitians in Miami feel sure his time has arrived.
"People will be singing and dancing in the street and you will hear horns blowing and we will be happy," said Jan Mapou, who runs a bookstore and cultural center in Little Haiti when he's not at his day job as director of parking at Miami International Airport.
"The minute he makes it," Mapou says, smiling, "I am telling you, we are going to celebrate."
Brutus, a Democrat, is running for state representative in District 108 and is heavily favored. About 75 percent of the voters are registered Democrats.
Amid the hefty donations of white-collar Haitians to his $40,000 campaign account are $1, $2 and $3 contributions from scores of desperately poor Haitians. It is a testament to the mixed success of Haitian immigrants in South Florida, but also to the breadth of support for the eloquent and self-assured Brutus.
Although Brutus is the favorite, he is being challenged by Republican Reggie Thompson, a well-spoken and affable social worker who calls himself a "political oddity."
A first-time candidate, Thompson, 45, intends to outwork Brutus, in part by convincing African-Americans and Haitians alike that Republicans are not "rich, white and evil."
It is hard to imagine which candidate would make the bigger splash in victory.
Put aside the stir he would cause by beating the vaunted Brutus. Thompson would be only the second black person since Reconstruction to be elected as a Republican to the Florida Legislature.
The first, John Plummer, was elected by a fluke in 1980 when Miami voters seemed to confuse him with a white Democrat who had the same last name.
(Rudy Bradley, a black state representative from St. Petersburg, was elected as a Democrat before he switched to the Republican Party last year.)
Thompson's plan relies on significant help from the district's African-American and white voters. The vast majority are Democrats, but he insists many are conservative and could be persuaded to vote for him.
The one-time naval officer and U.S. Naval Academy running back also is making an audacious run at Brutus's political base -- the heavily Democratic precincts of Miami's Haitian community.
This is what brings him to the apartment building on NE 54th Street, which is home to several Haitian Democrats. With his large smile set at full power, Thompson playfully arm-wrestles the two boys in their underwear. He approaches Adelvcia Vincent, a 53-year-old Haitian woman who is a registered Democrat.
"On Nov. 7, when you vote for president, vote for me also."
Vincent listens and smiles, pausing as she hauls a basket of giant sweet potatoes to her second-floor apartment. She tugs at the wide straps of her bright sundress.
"I help because you help me, too," she says, sounding persuaded.
"Bon soir," Thompson says, shaking her hand.
Thompson is accompanied by the Rev. Phipps St. Hilaire, a Haitian-born Republican and a significant party figure in South Florida. His agility in Creole and French is helpful in the quest for weak Democratic hearts.
St. Hilaire heads Christian Churches United, a group of smaller Haitian congregations that operates an education center and doubles this summer as an outpost for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. St. Hilaire is angry with Brutus, saying the candidate declined to help with a project to aid troubled Haitian juveniles in Miami-Dade County.
"Impossible!" he says of his fellow Haitian, calling him arrogant.
In contrast, Thompson quickly offered to help by using his social work contacts.
Now, St. Hilaire is speaking passionately to Haitian voters in the poorest sections of Miami, tugging at their elbows, demanding their attention, arguing in Creole that Thompson is more compassionate and more apt to help them than Brutus is.
"I don't know what he says," Thompson says of St. Hilaire, "but the ones he talks to end up being my voters."
"I tell them the truth," the minister says. "The truth will set you free.
"Brutus is my brother Haitian, but I think this brother (Thompson) deserves it better than him. . . .This is a man that can represent the Haitian community."
After the last stop of this modest campaign swing, where Thompson has helped an 8-year-old Haitian girl with her multiplication homework, he comes to a startling realization: Only one of the Haitian voters they've encountered knows the Brutus name. "That's why I just can't concede any Haitian votes here," he says.
Brutus says Thompson is "an unknown, untested, unconnected and totally confused Republican." He scoffs at St. Hilaire, calling him "disgruntled and jealous." The larger Haitian churches are safely in his camp, he says.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Brutus was sent to New York City at age 14 by his father, a dentist, to be educated. He lived with his sister and an aunt. But when the aunt returned to Haiti, he moved to Boston to be near his uncles. Brutus graduated in 1982 from the University of Massachusetts.
He went to law school at Boston's Suffolk University, driving a cab to help pay his way.
After graduating from law school in 1985, he moved to Miami, part of a huge influx of Haitians to South Florida in the mid 1980s. The young lawyer saw chaos and decided many of his fellow Haitians would need legal help.
He worked at the Metro-Dade Police Department, training officers in legal issues. He became an assistant federal public defender, then started his own practice in 1988. The move to South Florida changed him, he said.
"Until I got to Miami, I saw myself as a regular black man in America. But the realities of Miami refocused me entirely. I rediscovered my Haitian roots."
Today, Brutus says, he has the dual perspective of a "black person and a Haitian."
The distinction is a reflection of the complicated ethnic and political landscape in Miami, where this year's crisis over the fate of Elian Gonzalez made blacks of all nationalities shudder at the power of the Cuban establishment and sparked in them an urgency to get moving politically.
It also is a place where African-Americans and Haitians traditionally have competed with one another for recognition and power.
Brutus has been tested by two unsuccessful campaigns: one in 1994 for a judicial race, the other in 1998 against incumbent Beryl Roberts for the District 108 seat. He lost to Roberts by 51 votes, but vigorously contested the results.
After the election, it was discovered that Haitians, many of them voting for the first time and speaking only Creole, ran into problems at the polls, where workers did not speak their language. Nearly 100 people voted for both Roberts and Brutus, nullifying their ballots.
With Roberts leaving the seat because of term limits, Brutus is seen by many as her heir. But he and his supporters say they are taking nothing for granted.
Haitians are being registered by the hundreds and trained how to vote. A new initiative, a Creole language ballot in Haitian-dominated precincts, can only help Brutus. The candidate himself, who counted too heavily on his Haitian base in 1998, is reaching out more aggressively this time to African-American and white voters.
He also is making it clear his efforts in Tallahassee would go beyond a Haitian agenda.
That said, Brutus and others say there is no way Thompson can get any meaningful support from Haitian voters. No one but a Haitian can understand the Haitian immigrant experience, they say.
"History is like a big ball," Brutus said. "When it rolls, you either get out of its way and try to guide it, or be crushed."
Thompson said he will be trying hard to push the ball back uphill.
"I have to do something to change that," he said. "The ball is in my court."
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