The Sylvia Poitier I Knew





I knew Sylvia Poitier, who died this week at 87. 

She was a Broward County Commissioner from 1985 to 1998. Those were years I scoured the halls of the Government Center for stories.  


Sylvia Poitier



Politics today is all elbows and angry words. 

Poitier’s politics back then were soothing pats on the hand.

She was unusual in that harden group of politicians on the Commission. Compassion leaked from her every pore. The cornerstone of her politics was empathy. 

She felt everybody’s pain, perhaps because she had experienced real pain in her life. 

From the “other side of the tracks” in deeply-segregated Deerfield Beach, she  picked beans and peppers before she was a teenager. 

There was never enough money. There was never enough of anything. 

So naturally as a commissioner she sympathized with the troubled, the needy, anybody looking for help. 

Poitier was a true political pioneer — the first African American appointed to the Broward Commission.  

But it almost didn’t happen. 

Here is how I remember it:

Two groups of powerful pols were vying for power in Broward.

So when there was a vacancy on the Broward Commission, both group wanted to pick who would fill the seat. 

Refereeing this fight was Gov. Bob Graham, who would make the appointment based on recommendations from local Democrats. 

 Graham heard from both groups:

  • The South Broward Mafia, the nickname of those led by Ken Jenne, then a state senator and later Broward sheriff. They wanted to expand their influence by steering an appointment to a member of their clique.  
  • A collection of pols clustered around County Commissioners Scott Cowan and Nicki Grossman. They didn’t want Jenne and his crowd getting a foothold on the Commission. 

Jenne’s group lobbied for Bob Butterworth to get the job. Butterworth had an extensive resume including Broward Sheriff, mayor of Sunrise and head of Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles. 

At first Jenne’s clique had the ear of the governor. Jenne was an influential state senator and the governor knew Butterworth. 

But Cowan and Grossman outmaneuvered Jenne.

They dangled a potential appointment that was hard for Graham to turn down: It was good politics to name the Commission’s first African American — Poitier. 

Then Cowan and Grossman rounded up support for Poitier from black groups and condominium associations.

Poitier got the appointment.

It was a good choice by Graham. It opened up the Broward Commission to a voice from another world — the inner city black community.

Everything she did during the next 13 years as a commissioner was a reflection of her upbringing. 

She remembered being surrounded by people who couldn’t find jobs. People who couldn’t find homes. People who went to sleep hungry.  

People like that were still around and Poitier fought for them. 

She had first hand knowledge of their plight. 

She felt their pain and tried to do something about it. 

Poitier felt.

Isn’t that’s a good epitaph to have?  




This article is my memories of Sylvia Poitier during her time on the County Commission.

Much later in life in 2012 when she was a Deerfield Beach commissioner, she ran into trouble for misusing city resources and not revealing conflicts of interest. For four misdemeanor charges of falsifying records, she was sentenced to a year’s probation, fined $1,000 and ordered to perform community service hours. 

By the time of her death, even former political enemies had reconciled with Poitier. 

Deerfield Beach Mayor Bill Ganz was a critic of Poitier in the past, but they made up, according to

“We certainly had our issues, early on when I served with her … and she paid a price for that…Toward the end of her life, we forged a good relationship. She would call me with questions and concerns. It wasn’t self-serving, it was caring about the community. It was always a very enjoyable conversation, and she will be missed,” he told .


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