Dozell Varner Jr. hadn't seen the op-ed piece he penned for the Sun-Sentinel this past January 24 until New Times gave him a copy. That's because the assistant pastor at Mount Bethel Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale refused to spend 35 cents on the newspaper. And though he accepted the editors' offers to write more, he's reconsidering. "If four people bought the paper to read what I have to say," he says, "that would be $1.40 more than I want them to make off me."
Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant.
Or, more accurately, the way the Sentinel has covered the county's first and only countywide black elected official.
Members of the African American Ecumenical Ministerial Fellowship agreed on January 30 that the Sentinel coverage is slanted against Oliphant. "[The newspaper] is just short of seeing a black economic boycott," Varner says. "The Sun-Sentinel has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for our community. It's yellow journalism. It's cowardly. It's journalism that doesn't care about both sides. It's journalism to satisfy the powers that be."
And it's not just the Sentinel that some leaders of Broward's African-American community have criticized. They have charged the County Commission and the local Democratic Party with racism over their treatment of Oliphant.
Varner, a Jacksonville native, is 45 years of age, balding, 6-feet, 4-inches tall, and built like a monster truck. As a young man, he worked as a radio sports announcer in Jacksonville and thought he would follow a career in journalism. Instead, he spent seven years as a police officer before returning to college, obtaining a master's of divinity degree, and joining the Baptist ministry. He spent nine years as a pastor near Chicago and relocated to Fort Lauderdale and Mount Bethel five years ago. In recent weeks, he has become one of Oliphant's most visible and vehement defenders. He contends his views are broadly shared in Broward's African-American community.
Critics have hammered Oliphant like an avalanche. They pounded her after her inaugural election as supervisor -- that despicable September 2002 primary when some polling places never opened, new voting machines didn't work, a bunch of poll workers failed to show up, and ballots were missing for days. The media and some politicos have alleged that Oliphant is an incompetent supervisor who misspent taxpayer money, hired friends and then overpaid them, and steered contracts to political allies who didn't bother to complete the work. Lately, prosecutors and auditors have entered the fray: Local media including the Sentinel disclosed that she may have broken the law by hiding and perhaps discarding hundreds of uncounted absentee ballots.
Varner claims this incriminating aggregation is a campaign engineered by Oliphant's enemies on the Democrat-dominated County Commission to drive her (a fellow Democrat) from office or to convince Gov. Jeb Bush to remove her. At the instigation of those enemies, her entire staff of 59 employees may eventually be subpoenaed. "Who could withstand that kind of scrutiny?" Varner asks.
Indeed, most of the alleged wrongdoing is typical of the rewards and favor-mongering practiced by elected South Florida officials. Hiring friends? Steering contracts to supporters? It may not be right, but is it anything new? Haven't those sorts of charges been leveled at Oliphant nemesis and County Commissioner Lori Parrish?
So what if Oliphant spent money to make her predecessor's cramped and threadbare office nice? That's a time-honored tradition.
Sure she hired friends, but what about clerk of the courts Howard Forman? The former state senator gave his administrative assistant in Tallahassee a $92,000 job in the clerk's office. Forman also rewarded Bernard Schinder, a long-time political ally, with a $150-an-hour contract as the clerk's office auditor.
Varner admits concern that Oliphant overspent her budget by $900,000, but he points out she faced two significant issues: redistricting, a once-per-decade redrawing of precinct maps; and a change of the county's voting system from punch card to electronic. The electronic system chosen by the County Commission, which had originally balked at computerization, cost $17 million.
And, to keep things in context, consider that bureaucrats regularly spend more than they plan. The recently completed $40 million Hallandale Beach Boulevard Bridge, for instance, came in $5 million over budget.
Moreover, Oliphant took over the office of supervisor after the most screwed-up election in memory, the presidential debacle of November 2000. Oliphant supporters wonder what sort of havoc she inherited from her predecessor, Republican Jane Carroll.
Taken individually, Varner thinks, these examples of irresponsibility and cronyism wouldn't be enough to taint Oliphant's political future. It is the cascade of wrongdoing, he thinks, raining down on readers day after day in the pages of the Sentinel that has created the image of Oliphant as an embarrassment to the office. Although the Miami Herald has reported the same information, Varner says the Herald's tone has been less crusading.
And the unopened ballots? "That is serious," he says. "I know the price people paid for me to be able to vote." But after the County Commission failed to pressure Oliphant into resigning and after Gov. Bush refused to remove her, Varner thinks the supervisor's opponents had to pin something more on her. "I, for one, am one of those who wonders if [the ballots] were planted there," he says. "With all the suspicious activity in that office, it wouldn't surprise me."
In the black community, Varner says, Oliphant enjoys broad support. She hired minorities for top jobs in her office. She conducted a massive voter registration campaign that helped Broward County to surpass Miami-Dade in the number of registered voters. Even detractors acknowledge that Oliphant's voter outreach was successful. Says Varner: "The only question about Mrs. Oliphant in the community a couple of months ago was just how high up in public office was she going to rise."
Two years ago, she won the Democratic primary even though the Sentinel and a coalition of 44 local Democratic clubs endorsed her opponents, Joe Cotter and David Brown. When there was talk of bringing her office under County Commission control, hundreds of supporters headed to County Hall to quash the idea. When commissioners initially balked at the idea of computerization, she pressured them by taking her case to community groups.
An elected official who is able to fight off attacks and push through her agenda without going through the traditional political channels is a threat, Varner believes. Oliphant was creating a political dynasty of her own. That is why, Varner believes, the attacks on the supervisor turned rabid.
The Sentinel coverage has simply parroted Oliphant's enemies. "The Sun-Sentinel has shown itself to be an enemy of the black community," he says. "They have totally taken the side of the power bloc. They have joined with them to go after Mrs. Oliphant. We are an oppressed community. We don't have the dollars, and we don't have the political power. They are siding with the people who they think their bread and butter comes from."
The suspicions about the possible planting of unopened ballots were echoed during a recent breakfast hour at Skinner's Grill on Sistrunk Boulevard in the heart of Fort Lauderdale's traditional black business district. Long-haul trucker Jesse Lewis, who slurped up eggs over easy and grits last week, said any black in a high-powered job like Oliphant's is going to be scrutinized far more than his or her white colleagues. "Because she's black," he said, "every little thing she does is going to come to the spotlight."
"It's a fact," agreed waitress Sheena X. "She's a black woman in politics, and she's in the forefront. That's why.
"I think those ballots were planted there."
Then Lewis noted that there was an exodus of long-time employees from the Elections Office when Carroll announced she wouldn't seek office again. Two of Carroll's four top deputy supervisors resigned, and a handful of other employees left. Oliphant replaced half the staff, and many of those people had no elections experience. Lewis thinks Oliphant underestimated the degree of scrutiny she would receive as a black elected official with a $5 million budget. "She needed at least three top-notch experts right under her," the trucker said. "And I mean top-notch."
Varner is heartened by a recounting of these words. "If this community had no passion about what is going on with Mrs. Oliphant," he says, "that would concern me."
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In recent weeks, the African American Clergy for a Better Broward County (which includes the ministerial alliance) and a group of local black elected officials stepped into the fray calling for an end to the attacks on Oliphant. Varner; Keith Clayborne, publisher of the Broward Times; and several others recently met with Sun-Sentinel Editor Earl Maucker to explain their problems with the newspaper's coverage.
In the days following that meeting, the Sentinel reported that black support for Oliphant was wavering. County Commissioner Joseph Eggelletion criticized her preparation for a County Commission meeting. Last week, Clayborne opened an editorial with the comment, "It's hard to defend the indefensible..." because Oliphant had declined his help. But Varner thinks the Sentinel is exaggerating the criticism once again. The community will unite behind Oliphant, he predicts. "Mrs. Oliphant is our supervisor, and we are proud of her. She is our role model, and we want to see her win this battle."
Varner says that Oliphant has been offered deals to resign from office before every major County Commission meeting in which she has been under fire, deals that would have allowed her to keep the same salary and move into high-profile jobs in the private sector. That she has refused those offers so far shows Varner that Oliphant has the guts to stand her ground. "The community sees that Miriam is not about to cave in," he says. "They feel that if she is ready to fight, we are going to stand with her. She's a warrior."
Even if Bush eventually removes Oliphant from office, Varner says she has opened the eyes of Broward's African-Americans. "Even if she fails, she has done an admirable job of standing up to and exposing the power structure underlying politics in this community." And, he says, "We will resurrect the Black Panther Party and vote for them rather than support the Democratic Party."