This year, Dufirstson Neree, a Haitian immigrant, is hoping to produce the most monumental change in black Miami's political history in decades. Neree, a longtime Miami resident who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives, has never held political office, has few powerful backers, and isn't a particularly public figure. But consider these three intriguing details about him.
First, at age 23, when many mortals were getting their first jobs, the kid started Little Haiti's first community-owned financial institution - the Little Haiti Edison Federal Credit Union, which became People's Credit Union in September 2004 - and has helped hundreds of low-income people obtain loans. Second, there is the master-of-the-universe resumŽ (a Brown bachelor's degree and both an MBA and a master's in public policy from Harvard); he has founded two nonprofit organizations, worked three years for the Inter-American Development Bank, and raised more than a billion dollars in private investment for projects in Latin America. Third, he's a charismatic, articulate former high school football star who speaks three languages (French, Kreyol, and Spanish) and who spent his childhood in the area.
"Dufirstson has a unique combination of financial literacy, policy know-how, and community knowledge," says Marc Villain, former chairman of the Haitian-American Political Action Committee, a nonpartisan organization that tries to recruit Haitian-American candidates. "He could be a legislative force."
Florida's 17th Congressional District has the largest concentration of Haitian-born voters of any district in the nation. "It's inevitable," says Phillip Brutus, the first Haitian ever elected to the Florida legislature. "The 17th District will send the first Haitian-American to Congress. It has to happen."
Neree is a native of northern Haiti whose family moved to Miami's Allapattah neighborhood when he was five years old. But unlike the tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants who fled the oppressive regime of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier that year, Neree's father was already familiar with the United States. A sound engineer, he frequently worked here for the well-known compas band Tropicana.
By the time Neree was in middle school, he was working part-time for his uncle helping hundreds of poor, often illiterate Caribbean immigrants fill out forms and navigate government bureaucracy for fees that ranged from $100 to $250. At Brown, Neree was a wide receiver on the football team and concentrated in economics. He became aware of the dearth of financial institutions back in his Miami neighborhood. "In Providence," he recalls, "you couldn't walk more than five minutes without finding an ATM machine. Back home, it was a fifty-minute bus ride to use my card."
Inspired by a BAM article about a community bank in Brooklyn, in 1999 Neree raised more than $150,000, appointed an eight-member board of directors, and created Little Haiti's first community bank. "If you don't have banks," he says, "people can't invest, buy homes, or create businesses."
After grad school at Harvard, Neree worked as a project consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C., making six figures, jet-setting to Latin America, and financing projects that, he says, "improved people's lives." But something was missing: Haiti. "There was never any investment in Haiti," he says.
Most political observers see Neree's candidacy as a long shot. His main opponent, incumbent Kendrick Meek, is well connected and the son of political legend Carrie Meek. Still, a good race would bring new hope to a district whose residents would like something to cheer about.