If you don't happen to live in Miramar, it's likely you've never heard of the city's mayor, Wayne Messam. But late last month, Messam — a 44-year-old Democrat — announced his long-shot bid to become president in 2020. Born in Pahokee to Jamaican parents, the first-generation immigrant was a wide receiver for Florida State's 1993 national champion football team who ran his own construction business before entering politics. In 2018, he served as president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials.
Over the past month, Messam's campaign has released a number of position statements on a variety of issues, including the New Zealand terror attack, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and student loan debt. On April 2, Messam sent an email to reporters condemning Joe Biden, who has been accused of inappropriately touching women.
"I believe the women who have spoken up and the Vice President will need to address this pattern of behavior," Messam said. "Democrats cannot afford a nominee bogged down by the past."
Perhaps now more than ever, connecting with female voters is of paramount importance for candidates. Already, a record-breaking six women have announced 2020 presidential campaigns. And in the post-#MeToo era, the Democratic Party is incentivized to put forth a nominee with an unblemished history.
But during his tenure as mayor of Miramar, Messam supported two top city administrators who have been accused of harassing women: Assistant City Manager Michael Moore, whose conduct was internally investigated and who was later sued for sexually harassing a female coworker in Miami-Dade County, and City Manager Vernon Hargray, who was sued by an executive assistant in Miramar for workplace discrimination. (Moore was named as a defendant in that lawsuit, too.)
Charly Norton, a spokeswoman for Messam, says the mayor supports women who come forward with harassment allegations.
"The Mayor's office has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment," Norton told New Times in a written statement. "We stand by our statement on believing the women who have spoken up on their interactions with Vice President Biden, and the Mayor's voice will not be silenced by those who want to attempt bankshot hit jobs."
For the past year, Miramar City Hall has experienced significant turnover of top brass. As mayor, Messam played a key role in helping fill those empty positions. After former City Manager Kathleen Woods-Richardson stepped down in April 2018, Messam recommended Moore temporarily take over as acting city manager. The next month, Messam sponsored an item to name Hargray to that job, calling him "known and respected in the community."
"I don’t agree with everything that Mr. Hargray has said or done, but I think his record stands for itself," Messam said at a commission meeting May 2, 2018.
That night, the commission approved Hargray as interim city manager, bumping Moore back to assistant city manager. In November, the commission voted to keep Hargray as permanent city manager for at least three years at $225,000 annually.
To put Messam's statement about Biden in context, it's important to recap the accusations against Moore and Hargray.
Prior to working in Miramar, Moore was an assistant director for Miami-Dade's Department of Public Works and Waste Management. Around 2014, Beverly Washington, a coworker of Moore's, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging Moore and other men at work had repeatedly sexually harassed her.
In a lawsuit she later filed against Moore and the others, Washington said Moore once whispered "kiss me" and tried to lick her ear at a county ceremony honoring women leaders. She also accused him of rubbing his legs against hers at a meeting and, on another occasion, telling her he liked "dark meat" while staring her up and down with his hand near his crotch. (Washington is black.) Moore has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, which is still pending in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
County records show Miami-Dade's Office of Human Rights and Fair Employment Practices looked into the complaints against Moore but determined there was "no evidence to corroborate the claim that Moore has engaged in unlawful sexual harassment." However, investigators said other employees perceived a pattern of sexual favoritism by Moore.
"It is important to note that the employee morale in the Enforcement Division is very low due in large measure to Moore's generally aggressive and controlling management style toward some employees contrasted with his overly friendly, if not blatantly flirtatious, conduct toward certain female employees and specific staffing decisions which many feel are unfair," a memo dated April 3, 2014 states. "There is no probable cause to believe Moore has engaged in any unlawful discriminatory or harassing conduct; however, based on the findings of this investigation, there is an appearance of impropriety, buttressed by Moore's overly friendly conduct toward certain subordinate female employees."
According to his LinkedIn profile, Moore left Miami-Dade County in July 2014 and began a new job as chief operations officer in Miramar. It was in that role that Moore was accused of harassing and demeaning Georgina Cid, an executive administrative assistant for the city who says she was unfairly demoted.
In a lawsuit filed against Miramar in April 2016, Cid accused city leaders of discriminating against her based on her Cuban-American origin. Cid said Moore gave her frustrating tasks, such as having her destroy files and then asking her to fish them out of the garbage. In later court proceedings, Cid added that he belittled her for making mistakes at work.
"He would close the door to my office and place both of his hands on my desk, creating a very hostile scene, and shout at me while accusing me of errors I wasn’t even making," she said, according to a report in Florida Bulldog. “He was negative, nitpicking, and critical about issues such as when I would go to lunch and who I needed to advise prior to leaving my desk, and failed to hold others to the same standard."
Her suit also named Hargray, who allegedly refused to speak directly to Cid, using another assistant as an intermediary. Cid described Hargray shouting at her to clean a conference room for a meeting he ultimately canceled.
"He said screaming in a very nasty way, 'I don’t care who cleans it, but I need it cleaned,'" Cid alleged. "He said, 'I don’t need this drama.'”
Cid said her friendship with another employee who had filed a complaint against the city was viewed as a betrayal by Moore and Hargray, who allegedly threatened Cid by telling her, "You will be going on a long vacation." Cid was demoted and ultimately terminated.
As Cid's lawsuit was still unfolding, Miramar gadfly Glenn Rice shared his concerns at a commission meeting February 21, 2018, that the city had not properly vetted Moore.
"I think if they would have done that properly they would have found out... that this individual had a sexual harassment complaint and was investigated," Rice said at the time. "This is all public record; this is not hearsay."
Nevertheless, on April 4, 2018, Messam recommended that Moore stand in for Woods-Richardson, who was leaving her post as city manager. Just a few weeks later, city commissioners, including Messam, voted to replace Moore — the "acting city manager" — with Hargray, who was approved as "interim city manager."
Meanwhile, the federal court case against Hargray and Moore was heating up. Following a trial in June 2018, a jury agreed Cid had been demoted on the basis of her Cuban-American ancestry and awarded her $300,000. (Miramar is now appealing that decision.)
Despite the jury's verdict, when Hargray's interim term ended, Messam sponsored a resolution on November 5, 2018, to approve a three-year contract for Hargray to become the permanent city manager.
While Cid's lawsuit was not discussed that night, then-Commissioner Darline Riggs suggested Messam was too closely aligned with Hargray and said the nomination "seemed to have happened in a very sneaky way."
"It would seem as though the Interim City Manager [Hargray] and most of our staff only answers to the mayor, and it's not supposed to be that way," Riggs said. "I’m not completely in opposition of Mr. Hargray being permanent; I just don’t like the way things are being done."
"I am one lone vote," Messam responded. "So your statement is false... He works for all of us."
That night, the commission narrowly approved Hargray's contract by a 3-2 vote that included Messam in favor. (Riggs voted no.)
Norton, the spokeswoman for Messam's presidential campaign, couldn't point to any public statements in which Messam specifically condemned the alleged behavior of Moore or Hargray. But in an email to New Times, she shared his comments from a commission meeting November 28, 2018.
In that meeting, Messam told residents he'd received several phone calls and questions regarding "various investigations about former employees or different accusations."
"I just want the public to know that everything has a process. And that every formal complaint is and will be investigated. And that there’s nothing that an elected official can do, or any staff person can do, until that process takes its due course and due process," the mayor said. "So you can continue the calls or emails, whatever the case may be — I don’t control that — but do know that as long as I am mayor, that I will do everything possible to ensure that everything is done on the up and up in this city."
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Now Messam is hard at work on the campaign trail. Last week, he spoke to voters in Greenville, South Carolina, about why he's running for president.
"I think that my vision, my passion, as a mayor of a major city in Florida — the only candidate from Florida, the only candidate from the South — I think that deserves to be heard in this race," he said, according to the Charlotte Observer. "When folks say, 'You don’t have a shot'... I’ve been defying the odds my entire life."
While that may be true, all indications are Messam still has a long way to go to reach the Oval Office. The Observer reported that only about 10 people attended his Greenville speech. And so far, Messam has fewer than 6,000 Twitter followers — a fraction of the 755,000 followers of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the fellow Democratic presidential candidate to whom Messam it most often compared. A few weeks ago, the website 538 said it was "keeping an eye on" the Miramar mayor. As of now, Messam has not filed any campaign finance reports, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Wayne Messam's full statement from campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton:
"The Mayor's office has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and is run by an accomplished woman of color. The Mayor is also on the record from the dais, making clear that any allegations should be reported to the proper departments and authorities, and where he stood on any allegations brought forward. The Mayor's reputation as a leader in Miramar speaks for itself, as his community gave him 86% of the vote in the most recent re-election. There is more work to do in Miramar and across the country to protect women, and he will continue to support those efforts. We stand by our statement on believing the women who have spoken up on their interactions with Vice President Biden, and the Mayor's voice will not be silenced by those who want to attempt bankshot hit jobs."