Leaders react to first black sheriff
For more than a century, the church now known as the New Mount Olive Baptist Church has been a centerpiece of life in Fort Lauderdale’s African American community. With more than 10,000 members it remains integral to the neighborhood around Sistrunk Boulevard.
That puts it at the heart of the most Democratic-leaning demographic in the most Democratic-leaning county in Florida. With their back against the wall, Democratic politicians have often come to the New Mount Olive Baptist Church to rally the black community in Broward County. Hillary Clinton stopped by just before the 2016 election, after a late announcement by then-FBI Director James Comey put her email servers back into headlines. Andrew Gillum stopped in after his own campaign, during the recount process.
And on Friday, Scott Israel held his news conference there after being suspended from office by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Leaders in Broward’s black community took the choice of venue as a sign of both Israel’s support of and support by black voters.
“I’m not surprised that the press conference is happening there,” said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “It just shows that support for the sheriff. They’re rallying around what they know, they’re rallying around who supports them.”
Jones added that the show of support for Israel wasn’t a slight against Gregory Tony, DeSantis’ choice to replace Israel, who would be the county’s first African American sheriff. “It’s just that [Tony] is an unknown for many people,” he said.
On the other hand, state Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, did think holding the news conference at Mount Olive was indicative of the black community’s support for Israel over DeSantis, regardless of their being unaware of Tony.
“From everything that I see, [Israel] has a diverse staff, so him leaning on the community he has a strong relationship with and a long-term relationship with would have more weight than someone who’s had problems with the African American community,” DuBose said.
During the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis took severe criticism from Gillum and his supporters over appearances at farright conferences and the racist language of some of DeSantis’ supporters, capped off by Gillum declaring in the final gubernatorial debate, “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he is a racist.”
Hearing that Broward was about to get its first African-American sheriff, Coral Springs City Commissioner Joshua Simmons came to DeSantis’ Fort Lauderdale appearance, which took place less than an hour before Israel’s response at Mount Olive, to see history made.
“[It] would be historic since we’ve never had an African-American sheriff here in Broward County,” he said. “In our political climate, seeing a person of color being in a position of authority ... it’s important for children to see that.”
DeSantis replaced Israel with Tony on the same day he and the rest of the Florida Clemency Board — Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody and Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — voted to grant a posthumous pardon to the Groveland Four. The four black men had been falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1949. Two were subsequently shot to death, while the other two were given lengthy prison terms.
Black lawmakers greeted the day’s news — the pardon and the new black sheriff — with a mix of cynicism and hope.
“Politics is a lot of what’s going on, in my opinion,” said DuBose, who was driving back to Fort Lauderdale from the clemency hearing in Tallahassee. “I don’t know if the governor’s trying to right a ship. We do Groveland today, you leave and you go to South Florida and make this announcement — I want to hear exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Jones offered the more optimistic response.
“The governor has surprised me with some of the actions he’s taken. Gov. Scott showed the black community no love — none at all,” he said. “Now, I am a huge Democrat, but give credit where credit’s due. Some of the move’s he’s making are exactly what Florida needs.”
Gregory Tony speaks to the media at the Ron Cochran Public Safety Complex after he was named sheriff by Gov. Ron DeSantis.