As lightning flashed across a purple sky on the evening of September 5, about 70 supporters of Broward County commission hopeful and current Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Carlton Moore cranked up the music at his West Oakland Park Boulevard campaign headquarters.
Just call my name, and I'll be there... poured from the speakers. It was Mariah Carey's voice perhaps, but it was clearly Moore's message to District 9 voters. Early poll results indicated a close race with State Rep. Josephus Eggelletion, whose term in Tallahassee expires in November.
Everyone was in high spirits.
"Hey darlin', how are you?" Moore asked an unfamiliar face in the crowd, one of few people not outfitted with a red-and-white T-shirt bearing the slogan "Carlton can do Moore for the county." Displaying a warm, if somewhat sly, grin, the nattily dressed politician agreed to a short chat about his campaign.
Until, that is, he was asked to explain his absence from a recent rally concerning racism in city government and unfair treatment of minority taxi drivers. "I've been busy planning my campaign," Moore started off, then suddenly checked himself. "Look," he said, taking a step backward, "this isn't a good time to talk about this."
Could he talk perhaps by telephone in the morning?
"Well, just call my secretary."
The call was made and never returned.
By evening's end Moore had captured 35 percent of the vote, prompting an October 3 runoff between himself and Eggelletion, who garnered almost 40 percent. (A third candidate, E. Pat Larkin, was eliminated.) At stake for the candidates is not only the chance to represent a district where 75 percent of the voters are African-Americans like themselves but also the opportunity to integrate an all-white county commission.
Moore's brushoff was surprising. He didn't make his mark in local politics by skirting issues or shying away from controversy. During 12 years as a city commissioner, he's frequently bucked city hall, especially when it comes to addressing the needs of minority citizens. Among other things, Moore has been credited with helping to win more parks in predominantly black neighborhoods and affordable housing for low-income families (such as the $40 million Regal Trace apartment complex near downtown Fort Lauderdale). More recently Moore challenged the way county commissioners were planning to spend $400 million on land conservation, declaring that blighted urban areas shouldn't be overlooked in the rush to preserve green space.
Moore's supporters say his ability to champion the interests of black folk is exactly why he deserves a county commission seat. But other local leaders, namely organizers of a recent rally for city workers and taxi drivers, say Moore has fallen down on the job.
When Citizens Against Racism, a local civic group, called for the protest at Stranahan Park two weeks ago, organizers hoped all three candidates in the District 9 race would attend -- especially after firebrand activist the Rev. Al Sharpton made a brief appearance in town to show his support. At Sharpton's and local organizers' urging, almost 600 people (including Eggelletion and Larkin) attended the rally.
Moore, on the other hand, expressed disappointment over Sharpton's visit, arguing the civil rights activist, whom he respects, should have conferred with local city leaders before sounding off to the masses.
Besides Moore's absence from the protest effort, other issues could jeopardize his political career. As Keith Clayborne of the Broward Times puts it, Moore has "built unholy alliances with the very people who've been suppressing the black community."
One such alliance involves Jesse Gaddis, one of the targets of the Stranahan Park rally. Some minority Yellow Cab drivers contend Gaddis charges them exorbitant fees for leasing their vehicles. Citing good relations with everyone except a few Haitians, Gaddis claims he's been unfairly targeted by black leaders from the political fringe.
But Moore's August 11 campaign finance report shows $1000 in donations from Gaddis and his wife Susan. Another $500 came from Peter Feldman, Gaddis' former business partner. The money was a significant chunk of the $43,000 Moore raised. (His most recent campaign finance report, due September 1, had not been submitted by press time.) Clayborne chuckles when mention is of made of the contributions. "Everybody knows about that," he says, but doesn't speculate about whether Gaddis' money kept Moore away from the rally.
Leola McCoy, Fort Lauderdale's first lady of black activism, won't speculate either. "We don't know why it is that Carlton didn't come -- but he certainly should have been there making a case," she pronounces. Remarking that Moore got his start as a civil rights leader, McCoy calls his no-show "simply appalling."
For his part Gaddis bristles at the notion that cash for Moore's campaign signals an attempt to buy his vote. "I've never had an issue before the city commission where I've had to ask Carlton for anything. I get the sense that somebody is trying to use the issue for the wrong purpose," Gaddis says. "I support Carlton Moore because I think he's done a great job for the city. He's been behind putting sewers in and a whole lot of issues that would benefit the black community, and for him to be made out not to represent [them] is ridiculous."
Aside from Gaddis' contribution, Moore's August finance report shows $2500 received from parking management firms such as USA Parking Systems and $6100 from local developers.
When he faces off against Eggelletion next month, Moore undoubtedly will rely on his political past to overcome voter skepticism. But people like Clayborne say faith in Moore is waning. Voters are more sophisticated and sometimes don't accept his approach, which is rapidly becoming passé. "One of the things that has made Carlton successful is that he has the ability to get on his feet and mouth the right words," Clayborne says, "to say a passage from the Bible that will get black folks emotional."
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"Carlton's never had a challenge from successful people, and I don't think he can handle that," Clayborne says. The newspaper publisher is part of a group of 15 to 20 business owners and other professionals who are forming a new bloc. "The paradigm for leadership is shifting," he says, "and we're not going away."
Chris Hood, a local businessman and rally organizer, is also critical of Moore's lack of response to complaints from local cab drivers and minority city workers. "When things happen and you don't say something, you're giving them the license to continue to do it," Hood says.
Like many other local citizens, Hood hasn't completely lost faith in Moore. After all, he is still an elected official who just might rise higher. But the climb will require Moore to prove he's willing to take a stand on behalf of his community. "We've got taxicab drivers who, as Jamaican and Haitian immigrants, don't know what the real deal in America is, so they've accepted some of this abuse," says Hood, adding that a lackadaisical stance on worker's rights could affect the area's national reputation.
"We're still considered somewhat of a resort to the rest of the country," Hood observes before posing a question he says political leaders like Moore can count on more citizens asking: "Is this the Venice of America or Soweto by the Sea?"