‘We Must Continue’ – Broward’s Black Elected Officials are Working Hard and Growing Fast
by José Pérez
In 1974, history was made when, in winning the race for a seat on the Broward County School Board, Dillard High social studies teacher Dr. Kathleen Cooper Wright became the first Black person to win a countywide election in Broward. Twelve years later, Sylvia Poitier became the first Black person elected as a Broward County Commissioner a year after being appointed to the commission by then-Governor Bob Graham.
The number of Black elected officials in Broward County has grown significantly since those days with the current number standing at 33 according to Dania Beach Vice Mayor Bobbie H. Grace. Those ranks include political figures at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels. Among that active number include people like United States Congressperson Alcee Hastings, County Supervisor of Elections Dr. Brenda Snipes, State Representative Hazelle Rogers, State Senator Christopher Smith, and Mayor of West Park Eric Jones (who is also the current chair of Broward Black Elected Officials, Inc.).
This growing number of Black elected officials in Broward County is busy working hard on projects as diverse as the population of the county itself.
For example, State Representative Perry Thurston, Jr., incoming leader for House democrats, is busy trying to improve his party’s super minority status in Tallahassee. To that end, he is involved with twelve different campaigns across the state. In order to achieve that objective, the democrats would need to have at least 42 seats in the upcoming legislative session. Currently, the democrats have 38 seats so Thurston says that the prospects of shifting the scales of power a little more towards the other side of the aisle are “looking very favorable.”
“We are anticipating significant gains,” said Thurston who ultimately hopes to move the legislature towards greater balance between both parties on the House floor.
County Commissioner Barbara Sharief’s district covers all of the Broward communities that border Miami-Dade County. Sharief’s primary focus first as a city commissioner in Miramar and now in the County Commission is housing, specifically foreclosures. “For some time now I’ve wanted to make sure that people who were being foreclosed had a resource,” said Sharief. Subsequently, she has been working to connect her constituents with different federal programs that could help them, including assistance for unemployed and underemployed home owners. “This is one issue that transcends the three counties’ boundaries and my duty as an elected official is to help the people affected,” said Sharief.
Housing is also important to Grace, was summoned out of retirement in 2010 to come back to the city to help with housing and CRA’s. “The most astonishing accomplishment for me,” said Grace, “was developing affordable housing in Dania Beach.” Specifically, 82 single family homes and a pair of buildings for older adults are the products of those efforts which are part of a larger community development initiative Grace talked about with the Miami Times.
Dale V. C. Holness, who sits on the Broward County Commission with Sharief, focuses on minimizing economic disparity. “My focus has been on economic development and job creation,” says Holness. For instance, he cites recent efforts to increase diversity within Broward County’s Fire Department as fruits of that focus. “At the beginning of this year, out of 840 firefighters, only 26 were Black,” said Holness who pointed out that the newest class of recruits has six Blacks out of a total class size of 15.
Recognizing the potential for international opportunities for growth to address sobering figures like the 30% of people in the 33311 zip code in Broward living below federal poverty levels, Holness is trying to take advantage of location and demographics in his community to improve circumstances. For instance, both a recent forum that focused on trade with Colombia with mayors of 12 different cities from that South American country and a widely successful international cricket match in Lauderhill that resulted in a $3million injection of funds into the local economy indicate an emerging aggressive approach to combating poverty.
Grace, who is also excited about the creation of community gardens growing organic foods “for the benefit of all residents” in her city, cited people like Robert Ingram, Carrie Meek, as well as Wright and Poitier for guiding her rightly as she embarked on her political career.
Following more directly in the footsteps of Wright is Benjamin Williams, who is finishing up his tenure as a member of the Broward County Public School Board. Williams’ most important project now is one that reflects upon all of today and tomorrow’s Broward’s elected officials: a sculpture of Wright to be erected in front of the same school board building named in her honor. With help from the Links of Fort Lauderdale, the Broward Education Foundation, and the school board, Williams says “we hope to finalize [the funding of the project] by November.” With the total goal of $75,000 almost within reach, Williams is optimistic – and motivated by Wright’s memory.
“She was an outstanding leader and educator,” said Williams, “and we must continue her work.”