Keon Hardemon and Gepsie Metellus

Keon Hardemon and Gepsie Metellus

For the first time in 16 years, Audrey Edmonson won’t be on the ballot for Miami-Dade County Commissioner District 3. Instead, voters will choose between a career community activist and an already elected official from a politically influential family.

Miami-Dade’s District 3 is a diverse place. It includes the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti, as well as majority white and Hispanic sectors like Wynwood, Edgewater, Midtown, the Venetian Islands, the design district, the upper eastside and a large chunk of the City of Miami’s downtown area. The municipalities of Miami Shores and El Portal are located in District 3, as is a large portion of Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood. Of the district’s 109,131 registered voters, 44.2% are Black, 33.6% are Hispanic and 14.1% are white, according to the latest statistics from the Miami-Dade Department of Elections.

During the Aug. 18 primary, six candidates ran to replace Edmonson. Now, just two will face each other in the Nov. 3rd runoff.

One of those candidates is Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La Haitian Community Center in North Miami and a prominent Haitian American activist for the past 20 years. Metellus, 60, also served as an aide to County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler between 1996 and 2001. During the primary, Metellus, who resides in an unincorporated neighborhood just north of Miami Shores, received 21.2% of the total vote. As of deadline, her campaign had raised $209,654.48 plus an additional $29,600 through her political committee, People for Community First.

Running against her is attorney Keon Hardemon, the Miami city commissioner for District 5 – which is entirely situated within District 3 – since 2014. A member of the Hardemon family and a resident of Liberty City, Hardemon, 36, obtained 49.2% of the vote – just a few decimal points shy of winning 50%, which would have avoided the need for the upcoming runoff. As of deadline, Hardemon’s campaign had raised $550,500, while One Miami-Dade and Improve Miami – two political committees run by the candidate’s aunt, Barbara Hardemon – had gathered $872,875.

Although she finished at a distant second in the primary, Metellus is not giving up.

“I am leaving no stone unturned, because one of the things I’m realizing is that people are thirsty for an alternative [to Hardemon],” she said.

Hardemon sees it differently.

“We were 209 votes away from winning outright, so I think it’s not truthful of her to say that there is an appetite [for someone else],” he said, later adding, “More than double the people chose to vote for me rather than [Metellus].”

Both candidates have strong ideas about COVID-19 relief, economic development and affordable housing. They also offered their opinions on transportation and police reform.

Pandemic protection

Metellus said COVID-19 recovery will be her top priority, and emphasized that many county residents “don’t realize that there are folks who go to bed hungry at night.” The pandemic has resulted in the loss of several jobs that may not come back, she added.

“The fallout from COVID is very real, and the fallout is in terms of health, it is in terms of economic insecurity, it is housing insecurity and it is also food insecurity,” she said.

If elected, she said she will push for measures to assist small businesses “to the extent that we can get some more resources in their hands.” To provide additional food relief and help the local agricultural industry recover, Metellus said the county “may want to look at how we buy surplus products from farmers” and perhaps even create a “neighborhood farmer’s market” in places with few grocery stores, with the help of local restaurants. During these events produce and prepared food items can be sold “at really reduced rates, creating some economic activity amid food deserts.”

But, most of all, Metellus said she will work with her colleagues to create COVID-19 relief programs.

“I may have a million ideas but I need to be able to convince my fellow commissioners to go along with me,” she said. “The solutions need to be doable and they need to be practical, and they need to be able to not bankrupt the county.”

Hardemon said he is “very proud of the amount of relief we have given to the [City of Miami’s District 5] when it comes to COVID-19.” However, he said that the county, under Mayor Carlos Giménez’s direction, shortchanged the City of Miami and other municipalities when it hogged around $470 million in federal CARES funding. Hardemon insists that county staff is “slow to react” and is having trouble handling the demand for relief from the community, resulting in a backlog.

As a county commissioner, he vowed he will work with cities on how to efficiently distribute aide instead of fighting against them.

“I am going to convince my colleagues to seek assistance from the cities, to seek assistance from the mayors of different communities, to help us use those dollars,” he said.

Economic strength

Another change Hardemon aspires to make is stopping the county from giving away publicly owned land in economically depressed areas like Liberty City to nonprofits, who – he insists – are unable to create businesses that will provide services and jobs.

“A property on MLK Boulevard was given to a spay and neutering clinic,” Hardemon offered as an example. “That wasn’t a smart use of resources for that space. … The people who work there don’t have … a [nearby] place to eat at lunch.”

Instead, Hardemon would like to see the county partner with a restaurant as well as offices for professionals, such as doctors or lawyers.

“For too long, we have given [land] away to people who aren’t going to create these sorts of businesses in the area,” he said. “The way I see it, we have to try to find a way to encourage smart development, business development that makes sense to the people living in these communities.”

Hardemon said he wants to encourage “public infrastructure investments” in blighted areas, as well as free rent to private businesses in publicly owned buildings, so they have an “easier time” opening.

“Basically, you are trying to incentivize investment and development in places where it’s been lacking for decades,” Hardemon explained, adding that revitalizing commercial corridors will go a long way toward uplifting the surrounding area.

“You look at commercial corridors and places where you have commercial development and commercial businesses. Usually near those commercial corridors you have neighborhoods where people are taking care of their property and the communities are viable,” he said.

Metellus said she wants the county to look at “anti-poverty tools” that will help impoverished families get the “leg up” they need to succeed, such as children’s savings accounts. She noted that the City of Miami started a children’s savings account program last year, funded with bond money, that provides free savings accounts for kindergartners attending public elementary schools that feed into one of five area high schools. Each of those accounts includes between $25 and $50 in seed money from the City of Miami.

“Children’s savings accounts are increasingly growing in popularity [across the United States] and they’re a great anti-poverty tool,” she said.

Metellus also wants the county to look at programs in other parts of the nation that can help struggling Black-owned businesses succeed. In spite of an ongoing development boom in District 3 east of I-95, Metellus said “you can count sometimes on one hand the number of Black-owned businesses that are thriving in this community.”

“Given all this activity and construction and investment … when it does not translate to [include] the participation of the more vulnerable business community, that’s that an area we got to look at,” she said. “Because if we are talking prosperity, we want to create a level playing field where the rising tide lifts all boats.”

Hardemon said that as a City of Miami commissioner, he has given “more million-dollar grants to minority businesses than any other commissioner in the past” and, as a county commissioner, he will “continue to provide such assistance to communities that are in need in the future.”

“There has not been a more business-friendly commissioner than me,” he stated in an email to The Miami Times. “I have encouraged business opportunities in the neediest and most difficult to serve communities in Miami-Dade County.”

Accessible housing and mass transit

Rather than giving away county-owned land to subsidized rental developers, Hardemon wants to see a homeownership program that will enable residents of redeveloped affordable housing projects become owners instead of renters.

“Someone should be taking these resources and making homeowners out of residents, giving them an opportunity to have some equity in the land that they’re living on. To have some pride in their place,” he said.

Declaring housing and housing affordability among the big issues in District 3, Metellus said if elected she will make sure that her commission colleagues are “on the same page” of a road map to construct more affordable housing.

“The county commissioners must be in lockstep around the priority to build affordable housing, whether those units are mixed-use, mixed-income, micro units, or units for people who need supportive housing,” she said.

Metellus also supports building mixed-income housing “hubs” with retail and office space along commuter rail lines like Metrorail, as well as a proposed commuter line along the Florida East Coast Railway. Such transit-oriented developments, incidentally, are already envisioned in the county’s SMART plan for rapid transit corridors.

“[They] are a new best practice, and they create housing in areas where people are going to necessarily congregate,” she said.

Hardemon agreed that it’s “about time the county make the tough decisions to advance the transportation system,” adding that the county “would benefit greatly” by the creation of a system that connects all parts of Miami-Dade.

“Transportation isn’t just about getting people to and from places. It’s about true improvement of quality of life,” he said.

Crime and police

Two other critical quality-of-life issues are crime and police reform. Hardemon said the City of Miami’s anti-poverty initiative sought to reduce crime by increasing police presence in tandem with boosting economic development and city projects that help “make the community better.”

“The county would do itself justice in mirroring that by saying, look, we want to invest in our law enforcement. We want to invest in making sure our community has the proper level of staffing … and every resource they need to be safe in their job. But to be able to keep our community safe, we want to be able to … [create] opportunities for economic success and jobs. Investment in green space and beautification of communities,” he said.

As for reforming the Miami-Dade Police Department itself, Hardemon expects changes will be made once a new mayor is in place, including who will become the next director of the department. But ultimately the MDPD will undergo another cultural shift in four years when, thanks to a state mandate, the county will be led by an elected sheriff for the first time since 1966.

“We don’t know what the effect is going to be,” Hardemon said. “We are going to have a regular official, a politician, who is going to be the [head] law enforcement officer. … The question is, will it be beneficial to the people?”

Metellus said law enforcement presence and public safety is important, but so is trust.

“If a segment of our community does not trust the police, we have to work on that area,” she said.

Metellus suggested that officers be educated on how police were used to oppress the Black community in the early half of the 20th century in Miami in order to enforce segregation and Jim Crow laws.

“I think when police officers are made aware of that history, they will understand why it’s incumbent upon them to make sure they are working to build bridges with populations that … have not had good experiences with police,” she said. “And I think when people are made aware of that history, it becomes undeniable to them. They understand that tensions exist.”