A cool breeze whispers through a leafy canopy that shades dozens of Haitian-American leaders who sit on folding chairs in a Savannah, Georgia, park. The crowd stirs as an artist unveils a handsome bronze statue of six weary soldiers. It's a memorial to the Haitian troops who died in the battle for American independence.
The October 2009 ceremony seems a proud expression of Haitian-American pride — until the attendees squint and look more closely at the rifle-toting figures.
One soldier's face, carefully crafted in cast metal, is the unmistakable chiseled likeness of Dr. Rudy Moise, a wealthy Davie physician, lawyer, would-be movie star, and now candidate for U.S. Congress who paid $120,000 to commission the monument.
"Psychology tells us something about a man who does this kind of a thing," says Jan Mapou, a bookstore owner who supports one of Moise's political opponents. "It hurt the community a lot."
Moise is poised to bankroll a path to the congressional seat vacated by Kendrick Meek, representing mostly black neighborhoods from Overtown to Hollywood. It may be the most important race this year for black voters in South Florida — and perhaps the most critical ever for Haitian-Americans. At least four of the candidates, including Moise, were born on the disaster-plagued island, and all are reasonably qualified.
Though there's no public polling in the eight-way Democratic primary, Moise has ten times more cash than anyone else. He has poured more than $1 million of his own money into the campaign.
But Moise's controversial background has some people questioning whether his train to Washington, D.C., is moving too fast. Not only did he paste his mug on the statue in Savannah but he also squandered a taxpayer-funded loan from a discredited nonprofit. He has even cast himself as leading man in B movies to publicize his campaign, critics say.
"Rudy shouldn't be able to spend his way to Washington," says Tony Jean-Thenor, chairman of Veye Yo, an immigrant advocacy group. "He has a lot of problems, and I think voters know that."
Moise has the kind of compelling life story that makes campaign managers drool. Born in 1954 in Port-au-Prince, he grew up in the tenuous middle class. His mother, Josette, taught school, and his father, Ossini, worked as a bookkeeper. In the 1960s, Moise's parents immigrated to Chicago with his two sisters, leaving Rudy and a brother to finish Catholic high school on the island.
After graduation, the 17-year-old Moise joined his parents in Chicago. He was an eager student, and after one year in an American school, he had learned English and scored well enough on exams to get into the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he received his undergraduate degree before earning his MD at Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Moise first came to Miami in the early 1980s. He had earned a federal grant for his medical studies and needed to devote a few years practicing in an underserved community. "Miami's Haitian refugee population was just growing then, and there weren't enough doctors who spoke Creole," he says. "So I volunteered."
He soon realized there was also a niche for new business. After four years in a clinic, he took out a loan and bought an 800-square-foot storefront on NW 119th Street in North Miami to start his own practice. Today, Comprehensive Health Center has expanded to 10,000 square feet in several locations.
Soon after opening his practice, he enrolled at the University of Miami and earned an MBA. Then he studied law at UM and passed the state bar exam. For good measure, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserve, recently rising to the rank of colonel and the position of flight surgeon.
His overachieving didn't stop there. He also worked as the on-call surgeon for Miami Vice, modeled for Ebony magazine, ran the University of Miami Alumni Association, and served on scores of boards. And he has used his profits to invest in a staggering array of businesses — 21 in all, according to state records — including an ambulance company, several diagnostic centers, and a movie production firm. "I have more life experience than anyone else in this race," he says.
But Moise has also made some questionable deals. In 2001, he established Miami's first full-time Creole-language radio station, Radio Carnivale, leasing airtime from 1020 AM. He hired 15 correspondents in Haiti and DJs to spin from 7 a.m. till 7 p.m.
To help finance the deal, he accepted a $500,000 loan in October 2003 from the taxpayer-funded Miami-Dade Empowerment Trust. The agency, founded four years earlier to foster business in the county's poorest neighborhoods, turned into a beehive of corruption and lax accounting. A 2007 audit found millions poured into questionable deals and failed projects.
Radio Carnivale was one of the doomed businesses. The station went under in 2004. Soon after, Adib Eden, owner of 1020 AM's lease, sued Moise and claimed he'd stiffed him on $809,000 in fees. Moise eventually settled with Eden, paying him more than $600,000. But the Empowerment Trust ate the $500,000 loan, and auditors noted in 2007 that Moise's company was "insolvent."
Moise says the loan was made to the corporation, so he has no personal obligation to pay it off. "I was the single biggest loser in this deal. The company owed a lot of people money, and it owed me a lot when we closed it down," he says. "My goal was to give this community Haitian radio, and in that, we succeeded."
Just before he declared his bid for Meek's seat in Congress, Moise said organizers approached him about finishing Savannah's Haitian memorial. A campaign to collect small donations for it had stalled. They asked Moise to fund the rest. "I always want to promote Haitian culture for other people, so I said OK," he says.
Moise says the sculptor, James Mastin, asked him to sit for the piece because of his work as a magazine model. (That doesn't explain why the chubby, un-GQ face of the monument campaign's organizer, Daniel Fils-Aime, graced another soldier.) "I decided it would be an honor," Moise says.
That's not how others viewed it. Phillip Brutus, a former state representative also running for Meek's seat, called it "sacrilege." Mapou worries children will be confused when they see a well-known man on a supposedly historic statue.
Moise has taken more heat for another passion that some detractors see as a vanity project: self-funding B movies and then casting himself in a starring role. His first film, the torrid Wind of Desire, made a mark in Little Haiti. Copies still sit on the shelves of Mapou's bookstore, and Moise is often recognized around town because of the role.
In 2009, he cast himself alongside Kenya Moore, an actress with credits dating back to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He played Dr. Richard Lazard, a newlywed cursed by a voodoo priest in a film called Haitian Nights. The sequel, Trapped: Haitian Nights, is due out in September. In the trailer, Moise writhes in a straitjacket as a detective played by Vivica A. Fox investigates his wife's disappearance. The film is scheduled to premiere in 15 cities, Moise says.
"I loved Elvis Presley and Johnny Holiday growing up in Haiti, and I always said I'd love to be in the movies," he says. "Everyone has an artistic side, and it's a good balance for me to do movies."
Moise's opponents have criticized him for advertising the film, charging that the posters should count as political ads and be reported in his finance reports.
He's also been hammered for living in a $2.3 million mansion in Davie, which he bought in 2007. In federal races, candidates aren't required to live in their district. But some observers question whether Moise is in touch with the largely poor area he hopes to represent.
"I've owned multiple businesses in this district, and I know this area better than anyone," Moise counters while sitting in his North Miami office. "My office has been here for 30 years. I still get my hair cut across the street."
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The candidate's latest filings show he has raised $1.4 million, including more than $400,000 from donors — a huge lead over state Rep. Frederica Wilson, who is second in the field with $205,108.
Still, it's difficult to predict how the race will play out. It's undoubtedly the best chance ever for a Haitian-American to get to Congress, because Meek and his mother, Carrie, have held a stranglehold on the seat in the heart of Little Haiti since it was created in 1992.
On a recent weekday morning, more than 30 young volunteers stuff envelopes and dial phones inside Moise's headquarters next to his clinic on NW 119th Street near I-95. He sits inside a conference room with notes scrawled across dry-erase boards, ignoring a phone that rings every few minutes. He rubs a huge, strong hand through his thinning hair and flashes a big-screen, slightly gap-toothed smile.
Voters, he says, will flock to him because of his strengths. He has created health-care jobs, treated poor patients, and emphasized education. "My whole career has been about service, as a physician for 25 years, in the Air Force, as a community leader," he says. "I want to put all my life experience to work. I want to serve even more people."