This story is by Macollvie Jean-François, a Haitian-American news reporter with the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.
On a recent Thursday night at a Haitian restaurant near Fort Lauderdale, Karl Heintz held court at a table where he sat with a half dozen other Haitian men. Over a heap of bronzed chicken and mounds of rice and beans, Heintz, a 36-year-old small-business owner, gave a 15-minute synopsis of the presidential race and the candidates that would rival that of any cable news network political analyst. He went from Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention to Sarah Palin’s interview with Charles Gibson.
About a week later at the Palm Beach County Civic Center in Delray Beach, about 80 Haitian-Americans assembled for a Haitians for Obama rally. When a few people pulled out checkbooks to donate, Frantz Richard, 54, persuaded them to do it online instead. He keyed in their credit card and other personal information on the laptop right there at the reception area.
Excitement over Obama’s candidacy and disenchantment with the Bush administration have combined to push Heintz, Richard and other Haitians to actively campaign this year. Heintz said he’s not part of any formal groups, but he stays informed, has made nearly $500 in campaign contributions over several months, and he understands how close the election could be. (The 537 votes that cost Gore Florida in 2000 are becoming something close to a mantra, with many people alluding to them in cautionary tones.)
Haitian-American users on Facebook and MySpace, meanwhile, have been circulating information about the candidates for months.
Within this mostly-Democratic voting bloc, most of the campaign events in South Florida are pro-Obama. Most Haitian-Americans support the Democrat unabashedly, citing his inspiring success in America as a black man with a “hyphenated identity.” His migration experience and his exposure to world cultures resonate with them as immigrants.
On the other hand, efforts supporting the Democratic ticket seem belated and less visible than during previous elections, for a variety of reasons— the online outreach option being one. Four years ago, you couldn’t drive two blocks in the traditional Haitian enclaves without seeing a storefront window plastered with red-white-blue campaign posters. However, quite a few Haitians for Obama groups have emerged since Hillary Clinton’s concession and the DNC. They’re now hosting fundraising events, handing our car stickers, and sporting t-shirts bearing Obama’s face with his “Yes, We Can” slogan in Creole: “Wi, Nou Kapab.”
Haitian voters say they want a change from the past eight years — in the economy, the war, education, health care, and other issues that impact all Americans. Haitians also favor immigration reform, a favorable U.S. policy toward Haiti, and even trade agreements with all Caribbean countries to help stabilize the region.
About twenty percent of Florida’s 18 million people are foreign-born, according to Census figures. The Census Bureau found roughly 234,000 Haitians living in the state. Community advocates maintain that many more live in South Florida alone. There are no hard figures showing how many voters are Haitian-born or of Haitian ancestry. In 2007, about 40 percent of the 11,552 Haitians that became U.S. citizens lived in Florida, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Overall, between 1998 and 2007, about 116,627 Haitians became U.S citizens.
While the group is relatively small, it’s still a significant bloc of black voters. Blacks account for about 12 percent of Florida’s 10.6 million registered voters.
Last week, during the Delray Beach rally organized by Haitians for Obama, Florida House Rep. Ronald Brisé, who is Haitian-American, told attendees to make sure they register every eligible citizen in their family circles.
“All roads to the White House go through Florida,” Brisé, 34, said from the podium.
He then chuckled, paused, and added, “Somebody said, if we don’t screw it up.”
“But we won’t,” he added, stressing the last word. “Not if we register people to vote.”
That’s where most of the action has been. Recent polls show Obama and John McCain in a statistical dead heat among Florida voters (here’s one by the Sun Sentinel and here, one by the Miami Herald).
Volunteers from all ethnic groups are popping up in unexpected places, like after hours at Fort Lauderdale’s busy Riverfront entertainment district. They’ve mingled with mostly intoxicated young adults, to register those still sober. Nail salons have also drawn campaign workers or voter drive volunteers.
Jean Nicolas, owner of a dry cleaning business in Lauderhill, a city adjacent to Fort Lauderdale, said he’s seen the clipboard-wielding volunteers come around the strip mall fairly regularly.
“Everyone’s talking about this race, but it’s with ‘heart in hand,’” he said, using a Creole expression equivalent to ‘with bated breath.’ “No one wants to see another four years like we’ve had. But it won’t be easy for (Obama).”
When people come into Karl Heintz’s shop to buy music, transfer money, and -most importantly- hang out, he doesn’t let them leave without getting what he calls the full story. That’s why he also meets up late at night with the guys at the Haitian restaurant for what sounds like a political science study group.
“I don’t let people say things they don’t know,” Heintz said.
The relatively few Republican Haitian-Americans, on the other hand, are not as active as they were, say, four years ago. Marvin Dejean, a Republican and past president of the party’s outreach group in Fort Lauderdale, said Obama’s story has left many of them “in a crisis” as young entrepreneurial conservatives.
“There’s an impressive, young black male with a very good shot at the White House – what do you do?” asked Dejean, 39, a marketing and public relations business owner. “A lot of the ideas we pushed have moved away from what we advocated. It really makes the selling of the party really difficult.
“(The election) could go either way, especially in communities of color,” Dejean said. “Right now, it’s up for grabs. When you go across to that booth and you pull that curtain, it’s just you, that voting booth and that curtain. It’s what you want to see for you, for your children, for your future.”