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South Florida could soon have its first Haitian or Jamaican-American Congress member. But first, a recount

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick begins to celebrate on primary election night after pulling ahead of Broward County commissioner Dale Holness by 31 votes in the Democratic primary for Florida's 20th Congressional District.
Daniel Rivero
Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick begins to celebrate on primary election night after pulling ahead of Broward County commissioner Dale Holness by 31 votes in the Democratic primary for Florida's 20th Congressional District.

This post was updated Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 11:20 a.m.

The Democratic primary election for Florida’s 20th congressional district is razor thin as votes continue to be counted into Wednesday morning, with Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness now leading progressive candidate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick with just 12 votes.

On election night, Cherfilus-McCormick appeared to have the edge, with a 31-vote lead on Holness with 100% of precincts reporting. Mail-in ballots are still being counted in both Broward and Palm Beach counties, leading to the ongoing back and forth.

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In general, Holness holds the advantage with votes from Broward, while Cherfilus-McCormick holds it in Palm Beach. It's unclear how many remaining mail-in votes are left to be counted in which counties.

Broward County Mayor Dale Holness talks about Broward moving into Phase 2 of reopening from COVID-19 at Fort Lauderdale governmental center on September 11,2020.
Carline Jean
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Broward County Mayor Dale Holness talks about Broward moving into Phase 2 of reopening from COVID-19 at Fort Lauderdale governmental center on September 11,2020.

The race will enter into an automatic recount under Florida law.

If the current results hold, Jamaican-born Holness could bring 17 years of local government experience to Washington.

For her part, Cherfilus-McCormick, a Haitian-American health care executive, could give the national Democratic progressive movement a foothold in Florida.

Either one could become the first Jamaican-American or Haitian-American to represent South Florida in Congress.

The winner of the Democratic primary is broadly expected to win the Jan. 11 general election in the heavily Democratic district.

Cherfilus-McCormick began election night watching the results from her home, and made the drive to a watch party in Miramar as she still trailed Holness in the vote count.

“When we left and we were on our way here, we were down. And so when I got out the car people started running over and saying 'go over here, go over here, we’re up!’ And I said: ‘What?’ So it hasn’t even sunk in yet,” she told WLRN at the watch party. “I was expecting to have a different conversation.”

With 58% of the vote, Jason Mariner is the projected Republican Primary winner in the district, defeating Greg Musselwhite.

The Democratic race was slam-packed with eleven candidates vying to fill the shoes of Congressman Alcee Hastings, who died in April. Hastings represented the district for nearly three decades.

Elected to 15 terms, Hastings represented a sprawling district that runs from Miramar up to West Palm Beach and Lake Okeechobee. Florida’s 20th congressional district, encompasses majority-Black areas of Broward and Palm Beach counties, and is among the poorest congressional districts in the nation.

Cherfilus-McCormick previously ran against Hastings as a Democrat, in 2020 and in 2018.

“Third time is a charm, that’s what we’re praying for,” she said.

Her platform includes a wish list of progressive causes, including a call for raising the federal minimum wage to $20 an hour, expanding Medicare for all residents, sending monthly $1,000 payments to all adults earning under $75,000 a year, passing a Green New Deal to combat climate change, legalizing cannabis at the federal level and immigration reform.

Cherfilus-McCormick campaigned on not accepting money from corporate PACs and was endorsed by the group the Brand New Congress, a group dedicated to electing progressive candidates who refuse to accept corporate PAC money.

Instead, Cherfilus-McCormick largely self-funded her campaign to the tune of $3.7 million, far outpacing the combined total money raised by her competitors in a crowded primary election. She also received more than $117,000 in individual contributions.

Her campaign has spent more than $150,000 in digital, television and billboard advertising, not including print and video production services. That’s more than the total money raised by several of her opponents.

"Certainly when you put that much money in advertising, it then creates a situation where you can get your face out more," Holness said of Cherfilus-McCormick.

Cherfilus-McCormick has not filed paperwork yet disclosing her full net worth, but she has amassed her fortune by being the CEO of Trinity Health Care Services, an in-home health care provider that works across the state of Florida.

This year alone, her company has won nearly $23 million in contracts from the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis, in order to provide vaccines to the public, according to state contract data. The company also received $2.4 million in Payment Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration in 2020, as part of former President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 relief programs.

Holness, who also served as Broward County mayor, received public support from Hastings' son at his announcement event and has continually claimed the late congressman endorsed him before his death.

"I certainly believe that I'll be the person that will carry on his legacy and certainly the congressman knew that," Holness told WLRN back in April. The endorsement was even printed on his campaign yard signs.

The Haitian Connection

Cherfilus-McCormick is Haitian-American, which would likely make her the second child of Haitian immigrants to serve in Congress. Republican Mia Love was the first, and previously served as a Utah congresswoman between 2015 and 2019.

She would be the first Haitian-American Democrat in Congress, and the first to serve a community with a large diaspora.

Some supporters said the fact that her family is from Haiti figured prominently in voting for her. The political and security situation in Haiti has continued to deteriorate after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July. The nation has since been hit by a major earthquake, a tropical storm, a wave of gang violence and a fuel shortage that is disrupting the day-to-day lives of millions.

“We need somebody that can really speak for the Haitian community,” said Jaques Filsaime, after casting a vote in Miramar.

Having a strong Haitian-American in congress will not only help formulate foreign policy decisions towards the nation, akin to the influence shown by Cuban-Americans, he said, but it can potentially help galvanize and unite the Haitian diaspora inside the U.S. towards a common cause.

“Not only her — we. Haitians inside and outside, we have gotta be together to help solve the situation, solve the problem that brings that situation in Haiti,” he said. “I know that she will do something.”

Cherfilus-McCormick said if elected she would take the concerns of Haitian-American community seriously.

“That was kind of the movement that we were creating when we saw what was going on with the assassination, when we saw what happened with the earthquake, then the people under the bridge in Del Rio,” she said. “It was heartbreaking for a lot of Haitian-Americans and we felt like we didn’t have a voice.”

Several Cherfilus-McCormick supporters said a new progressive voice is desperately needed in Washington, and said they were tired of status quo politicians.

“The old guard needs to go, we need the new guard,” said Miramar resident Sayna Checo. “We need more progressive, younger people going for government. In these times it’s very important to vote for what you believe in. I feel like things are going a little bit backwards, and as a woman it’s very important we vote so we have someone defending our rights.”

a sign for Congressional candidate candidate Omari Hardy is outside the Palm Beach County Library's main branch, a polling place, on Nov. 2, 2021.
Wilkine Brutus
Former state legislator Omari Hardy is one of the candidates for the U.S. House of Representative seat in District 20, formerly held by the late Alcee Hastings.

One other candidate tried to carve out a progressive lane in the race, Democratic state Rep. Omari Hardy, told WLRN he hopes whoever wins the race in the end fulfills their campaign promises.

“Our voting rights are still in the balance. Women’s reproductive rights are still on the balance,“ said Hardy. “We watched the president put forward an agenda more aggressive and bold and transformative than I would have expected him to do … and we have watched that agenda get cut down.”

Dale Holness, who is barely trailing Cherfilus-McCormick in the race, spoke with WLRN as the election results were trickling in and the two went back and forth in the standings. Holness took a slight edge of votes in Broward County, but Cherfilus-McCormick swamped all the other candidates by a wider margin in Palm Beach County.

"It's a closer race than I thought,” he said. “We knew we were getting some real strong support in Broward County. And Palm Beach, we didn't do as well. And I think primarily because they don't know me as well in Palm Beach County."

A Controversial Special Election

The special congressional election has proven to be controversial for numerous reasons. First, Gov. DeSantis did not call for the special election for more than a month.

After being sued by Democratic candidate Elvin Dowling for not calling the special election in a timely manner, DeSantis set it for nine months after Congressman Hastings passed, making it one of the lengthiest vacancies in recent American history.

Candidates complained that the poor district would lack federal representation during a crucial year that could see votes for new social programs and potential infrastructure projects that could benefit the area.

And due to Florida’s “resign to run” laws, five candidates had to resign from their positions to run in the race. The governor will replace Holness and Barbara Sharief, two sitting Broward County commissioners, but special elections will have to be held for two Democratic seats in the Florida House and one in the Florida Senate.

The sitting members of the Legislature issued their letters of resignation in June, yet — again — Gov. DeSantis did not call special elections for those seats until after he was sued, in mid October.

“The average across all of the vacancies from 1999 through 2020 was a little bit over seven and a half days. And so this at 80 days is just by a factor of ten a complete outlier,” said Theresa Lee, the litigation director of the Harvard Law Clinic, which brought the case, upon filing the suit.

The prospect of not calling a special election in time for lawmakers to be seated for the 2022 legislative session meant Democrats would have significantly diminished representation for upcoming votes on issues like redistricting. The 2022 legislative session kicks off the same day as the special congressional election — January 11.

All of the candidates who had to resign to run for the congressional seat are Black Democrats, representing heavily Democratic districts.

Twelve days after the lawsuit was filed, Governor DeSantis set special elections for the state legislative seats.

“That he hasn’t lived up to the duties of his office on his own, and that a lawsuit is required to make that happen, certainly doesn’t speak well for governance in Florida,” Lee said, speaking of DeSantis.

In a letter in which he called for the special elections, DeSantis did not offer comments on why the delay took so long. He set the special elections for March 8, essentially ensuring that the legislative seats won't be filled until after the legislative session ends.

Turnout Low — As Expected

The turnout for the congressional race was low, with about 16% of eligible voters casting votes in Broward County, and about 17% in Palm Beach County.

Brylon Terry, a 28-year-old voter in West Palm Beach, told WLRN he was concerned about the low voter turnout.

"I feel that too many people often negate these elections and then, in turn, complain about something or somebody that gets voted in," Terry said.

Ivany Valdes, 24, said he was concerned about low voter turnout as well.

“A lot of people don’t know or don’t see it as a big deal,” Valdes said.

Low turnout is typical in off-year election and, in a race spread across so many candidates, it emphasized the fact that every single vote matters.

After having pulled ahead in the primary by less than three dozen votes, Cherfilus-McCormick said the tiny margin was nerve wracking.

“It still doesn’t feel real,” she said. “I think after the recount, then it will start feeling real.”

This post was updated on Wednesday, Nov. 3 to reflect the changing results with ongoing ballot counting

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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