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Haiti becomes an issue in race to replace dead Florida congressman

In a crowded field to fill the seat of a Florida congressional representative who died in office, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, one of two Haitian-Americans in the race for Florida’s 20th District, brought Haiti’s front and center as a campaign issue. 

At a candidate forum Tuesday, Cherfilus-McCormick opened up about her frustration with U.S. elected officials whom she said make decisions for Haiti. And she wants them to stop it.

“When we see elected officials rush in, impersonating Haitian people, [making] decisions for us, it angers us,” Cherfilus-McCormick said during a virtual forum organized by Broward County Alumnae Chapter and other groups. “We really want to see our country be independent.”

Cherfilus-McCormick is among 17 candidates running for the congressional seat of Florida’s 20th Congressional District long held by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings. The 84-year-old died during his time in office on April 6, 2021, prompting the state to hold a special election for the district. Hastings had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Haitian enclaves in Broward and Palm Beach counties such as Miramar are located in the 20th District. 

The primary election will take place Nov. 2, 2021 followed by a general election on Jan. 11, 2022, to fill the vacancy. 

Cherfilus-McCormick has poured $2.3 million of her own money into the campaign, according to the Sun-Sentinel, more than the top seven other Democrats combined. A Washington D.C. lobbyist for the past 10 years pushing for health care reform, Cherfilus-McCormick said the three biggest issues she will look to tackle are economic injustice, lack of healthcare and non-affordable housing. 

Cherfilus-McCormick and Emmanuel Morel, both Democrats, are the two remaining Haitian-American candidates. Cherfilus-McCormick said Haitian-American elected officials should not make decisions for Haiti either.

“[Anything] that happens in Haiti does not defer to and speak to us as Haitian-American leaders,” Cherfilus-McCormick said.

Haitians have long been asking the U.S. to step out of their affairs. In March, protesters burned the American flag and held signs demanding the U.S. not to associate with Haiti anymore. After the muder of President Jovenel Moise and then again after the earthquake, hundreds of Haitians took to social media to ask that the U.S. and diaspora listen to what people in Haiti want instead of imposing solutions on Haitians.

“We need to have a Haitian-American in Congress,” Cherfilus-McCormick, 42, of Miramar, said. “We never had a democrat to speak up for the community and the country. We need policies that actually support more sustainability instead of dependency.”

During Tuesday’s forum, contender Dale Holness responded to Cherfilus-McCormick’s critique of current elected officials by saying that he’s much connected to Haiti. 

“In terms of Haiti and help for Haiti, I’ve been there several times, I know Haiti,” said Holness, currently a Broward County District 9 commissioner. “All the Haitian-American elected officials in Broward County endorse me. I’m not impersonating, I’m a part of this community and I’ve been engaged for many years.”

Cherfilus-McCormick did not go into details about the actions she referenced. However, the White House is currently pushing for elections in Haiti, although many have said such an event may be fruitless since Haiti is reeling from the Aug. 14 earthquake and the assassination of Moise in July.

Another candidate at the forum, Perry Thurston Jr. said he plans to follow people of Haitian origin if elected, when it comes to assisting Haiti. 

“There are a lot of things the Haitian community needs and a lot of time we want to help them,” Thurston said. “Follow the lead of those individuals who are of Haitian descent.”

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