Back in 1995, when Hazelle Rogers, a Jamaica native, ran for a spot on the Lauderdale Lakes city commission, she was the first Caribbean American to seek public office in Broward County. She lost by two votes, in part because she struggled to find donors who would back her campaign.
The next year, she succeeded. Then, in 2008, she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, making her one of the state’s highest ranking Caribbean American officials.
Now that Rogers has reached her term limit, things look very different. Four out of the five candidates vying to replace her are Caribbean. The fifth is African American.
But Rogers worries they are struggling with the same issue that she did at first: raising money. Candidates for her seat in District 95 — which represents Lauderhill, Lauderdale Lakes, North Lauderdale, Margate, Tamarac, and Sunrise — have raised significantly less than those in other nearby districts. Barrington Russell, who currently serves as mayor of Lauderdale Lakes, is leading with $19,018.97, followed by Patrick Jabouin, Sr., who has raised $12,666.80. Roxanne Valies has brought in $12,623.04, and Robert Lynch, the sole African American candidate, has $11,450. Anika Omphroy has raised only $5,607.17.
Omphroy points out that she got a late start on fundraising because got a late start, filing nearly a year after the other candidates. None of the other candidates replied to New Times’ request for comment.
Meanwhile, over in District 93, which includes parts of Fort Lauderdale and Deerfield Beach, former Broward County commissioner Ken Keechl has raised $51,200.20 toward his run. In District 82, which represents wealthy Tequesta and Jupiter Island, the incumbent, MaryLynn Magar, has raised $106,320.66.
Rogers points out that the disparity is an issue for all black candidates, not just Caribbean Americans.
“The black businesses are not engaged and contributing to candidates, so we struggle to raise money from within our communities,” she says. “Most of our businesses are struggling themselves, so to take money out of their businesses might be challenging for them.”
The result is a legislature that is overwhelmingly white. Out of 120 members of the Florida House of Representatives, only 20 are black. Just two — Rogers and Miami’s Daphne Campbell, who was born in Haiti — are Caribbean American, despite the fact that Florida has the most Caribbean immigrants of any state in the country, totaling 1.4 million people.
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The lack of access to capital is one explanation for this disparity. Without the ability to pay for mailings, advertising, and a campaign staff, promising candidates can easily be overlooked.
“If you have people who have raised $600,000 for a seat and you’re struggling to raise $50,000, then it will always be the wealthy who win that race because they can get their word out on the radio,” Rogers says.
Still, George Odom, Jr., a Pompano Beach lawyer and former assistant public defender who has argued that South Florida’s judges are far too white, says that while money is a major factor, it’s not the only thing that matters in local elections.
“If you can get the support, you can get the ground troops, and you can get people coming out; you can make it happen,” he says.