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Miami Vice

Mayoral candidate Luther Campbell, not as nasty as he used to be.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By MATT LABASH
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As the Miami Herald’s Fred Grimm recently detailed, South Florida is no stranger to exotic political scandals, from mayoral arrests, to a whore-mongering county commissioner absconding to Australia, to truly curious instances of public-servant plundering​—​such as the 4,200 trees that went missing from a county right of way. Even one of the purported frontrunners in the special election, Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina, has snagged headlines after being investigated in a loansharking/Ponzi scheme. 

By contrast, Alvarez, who was pilloried for bad judgment, not corruption, was a choirboy. Still, voter sentiment against entrenched political arrogance has turned surly enough that an outsider like Uncle Luke, the man responsible for such timeless classics as “I Ain’t Bullshittin’, Pt. 4,” might be considered a viable alternative. 

Or at least he’s not being openly laughed at. As one Herald columnist wrote upon Campbell’s announced candidacy: “In a country that has largely merged corporate celebrity and politics, Luke is as credible a -candidate as any.”

I first drop in on Campbell’s world by making a left out of my hotel in South Beach, where if you’re not a gay underwear model with 5 percent body fat it’s easy to feel like a giant pair of rumpled khakis, then taking a right to the wrong side of the tracks. Miami has lots of those sides. I’m meeting Campbell at a youth summit at a church in West Perrine, the kind of church where Jesus and John the Baptist are depicted as black men on the stained-glass windows, in the kind of neighborhood where the gas-station cashier scans the barcode of your soda through a bulletproof window. But I have difficulty locating the candidate when I arrive. Church ladies fussing over buffet trays are stumped when I ask if they’ve seen him. 

In the men’s room, I ask a few 15-year-olds if they’ve seen Campbell, thinking surely they’d be aware of a star on their premises. “I don’t know no Luther Campbell,” says a kid who goes by Baby Razz, also a rapper. “Only Luther I know is Luther Vandross, and he deeeeaaad.” The march of time is cruel, even, and perhaps especially, for hip-hop legends. 

I find Campbell already seated in the sanctuary, and we whisper introductions. He looks rather anonymous in dark jeans, topsider boots, and a short-sleeved flannel shirt. When he stands, he’s an imposing 6′3″, but for now he’s slumped inconspicuously in a back pew, taking in the youth summit, which is nearly devoid of youth but choked full of the concerned citizens, local do-goodniks, and community activists who all favor the P-word. Not the P-word in Uncle Luke’s songs but, rather, “programs.” They’re not happy with the ones that exist, and they want a lot of new ones. 

They want more financial education. They want summer jobs. They want year-round jobs. They want, they want, they want. Then they want to hog the open-mike and talk about how the system is broken. (No fooling​—​at the rate everyone wants something, Alvarez would’ve had to hike property taxes on the other 60 percent of the electorate.)

This is what Luke calls part of his “listening tour,” shuttling around the community and listening to the concerns of the people, which he often does anyway as a de facto ambassador for those he calls “the have-nots” and as a weekly columnist for the Miami New Times. In columns, Campbell often takes up local causes when not playing a wildly unpredictable national troublemaker. He classifies himself as being part of the “Hip Hop Party,” which seems to entail saying whatever the hell he wants with no particular political allegiance. So the former First Amendment champion might, for instance, please liberals by suggesting the government shut down the Tea Party, whom he considers a hate group. Then he’ll throw a bone to libertarians, decrying the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, as “T’n’A” for their invasive frisking, while suggesting rappers be allowed to carry arms in the workplace, since they work in some pretty dangerous places. Then he might side with conservatives against the Ground Zero mosque as an insult to our dead soldiers. (“Muslims don’t need to explain their religion to Americans. We can go online to find out about Islam.”) 

Part of the problem with being on a listening tour is that other people want to do all the talking, even when they have nothing to say. One gentleman suggests kids need yoga before stressful tests. Another offers, “I come from a father that beat you for everything. There was no ADHD in my family.” Campbell laughs, leans over, and whispers, “The kids just came in​—​scared the hell out of ’em.” Another man feels he has the cure for what’s ailing our shiftless youth: “Bring back the draft!” 

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