This week’s column is about Arthur “Art” E. Teele Jr. Teele was the most-efficient elected official in the history of Miami-Dade County, bar-none. Not a Black elected official, but any elected official, regardless of race or nationality.
Teele held chairmanships in the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County government and got things done that benefitted the entire county. He would call witnesses into his office so they could watch him punch a lobbyist in the face?
Sadly, our elected officials have become cowardly quiet since the demise of Teele.
Teele was a decorated Vietnam War veteran and an attorney who was protective of his community. The man was brilliant and sharp as a razor in style, manner and thinking and he shook up the political scene from the late ‘80s until his death in 2005.
He wasn’t a weak and scared elected official by a long shot. A city or county administrator couldn’t just blurt anything out of their mouth to him, like I’ve seen former Miami-Dade Budget Director, and newly appointed Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Jennifer Moon do to county commissioners on several occasions. Teele would have listened to her utter her manufactured mumbo jumbo, raise his eyeglasses above his forehead, recall the entire dialogue and then proceed to tell her who said what to whom in a sharp, but stern, tone of voice. And then he would have crushed her argument using the same numbers.
The man was a genius of epic proportion who won two terms on the Dade County Commission in the 1990s. He was elected chairman of the Board of County Commissioners three times during a time when Miami-Dade County didn’t have an elected mayor, making him the de facto Dade County mayor. It is because of Teele’s sure and charismatic leadership, and his apparent invincibility as a three-time consecutive incumbent chairman of the County Commission, that the office of mayor was eventually brought back to county government (but stronger).
This way, the sweeping power of the chairman would go to the man or woman who could win a countywide race for “mayor.” And that was supposed to be a cake walk for anyone who wasn’t Black. But Teele would show status quo Miami the sheer power of will, confidence and competence when he decided to run for the countywide mayor seat anyway. In 1996, a showdown for mayor took place with a crowded ballot of candidates. Teele, a registered Republican, pulled an upset and emerged in a runoff with young Cuban-American lawyer and County Commissioner Alex Penelas (a Cuban-American Democrat) with the right to be the first ever “strong mayor” on the line. Penelas emerged victorious with voters casting ballots vastly along racial lines. And many believe that if Bill Perry (also African-American) hadn’t jumped into the race (some say to take African-American votes away from Teele), Teele could have won the race by a narrow margin.
Regardless of who won, the 1996 mayoral race, it was one for the ages – and it marked the end of a golden-era for Blacks in Miami. You see, Teele began his tenure on the County Commission in 1990. From 1990 to 1996, he was chairman of the Board, three times consecutive. And if you’ve been following my columns, you’ll notice that some of the best years of advocacy for Black empowerment came within that same span.
But Teele’s legend and reach stretched far beyond the Black community. Under Teele’s leadership, Miami hosted the first-ever “Summit of the Americas,” which brought together 34 countries from North and South America to sign the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an international trade agreement, whose purpose was to eliminate trade barriers between the participating countries.
Teele was also noted for securing millions of dollars for the homeless And what most of the people don’t know that every time that they put their bodies on a Metrorail or Metromover in this town, it is because of Arthur Teele. Teele was the head of the Urban Mass Transit Administration under President Ronald Reagan's administration and steered $220 million dollars into Miami-Dade County’s transit system in the 1980s. So when the “people” of Dade County decided to transfer the sweeping power of the chairman to a newly approved, countywide elected “mayor,” it proved too much of a temptation for the efficient and ultra-competent Teele. He resigned his post as commissioner and gambled on his chances to maintain his power by running for county mayor. He would never sit as a member of the County Commission again.
Since 1996, the mayoral seat in Miami-Dade has been won based on lines of ethnicity and has also been recalled along the same lines. When former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez and County Commissioner Natcha Seijas were being recalled it was more so led and implemented by their own people. But when those who are a part of the establishment in the Black community tried to recall Teele as a commissioner in the city of Miami, he withstood the recall and prevailed as a moderate Black Republican.
From his experience in the federal government, it was Teele’s ability to influence and sway his colleagues on the Miami commission that continued to build on his successful tenure as an elected official there. It was also his expertise that garnered him the chairmanship on the city commission and the head of the community redevelopment agency that was created to renovate and restore Overtown and nearby neighborhoods. When others pretended to be on their post and “Left the Gate Open,” it was the soldier in Teele who stayed and guarded the gate while those who look like us committed treason against him – and us.
So when you see textured pavements and new Black-owned shops in Overtown, it’s ok to acknowledge former City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones and current City Commissioner Keon Hardemon for implementation, but the master plan they used was not their own; it was the pioneering vision of Art Teele.
When the witch hunt began against Teele, it was disheartening to see the local Black leadership watch his mental health and demise play out right before our eyes. They became so quiet that you could hear a rat urinate on cotton. If you went to Teele with an issue he was going to get it resolved. Teele was the voice and a hero for the downtrodden in Overtown, Little Haiti, Liberty City and Brownsville. Now who will take on the mission of Nehemiah and rebuild the city? Who amongst you leaders can reset Black Miami to May 17, 1980? The day before Black Miami died.