Longtime congressional staffer Shirlee Lafleur is dead at 51

title=

Shirlee Moreau Lafleur, representing U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, urges President Trump to find a permanent solution for TPS recipients during a press conference at Family Action Network Movement (FAMN) in Miami on July 24, 2018.

[email protected]

She was a prominent player in several headline-making events, from an advocacy campaign to liberate nearly 300 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls to stopping deportations to remembering Miami-Dade’s Black victims of the pandemic.

But even as Shirlee Marie Moreau Lafleur built a reputation as a go-to congressional staffer during more than decade of service in one of Florida’s neediest House districts, she shunned the limelight, preferring instead to let her elected bosses take the mic.

Lafleur died on March 22 at the age of 51. The cause of death was liver cancer, said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami.

“Shirlee’s intellect, relationships, political acumen — and her heart — enabled her to change the lives of my constituents and others across our nation and the world,” said Wilson, who Lafleur worked for the last 10 years. “She was able to perform miracles that almost no one else could perform…because of the relationships she had built.”

A devoted public servant, Lafleur was previously a staffer for Congressman Kendrick Meek, whom she followed from the Florida Senate in Tallahassee to the halls of Congress in 2003. He vacated the House seat in 2010 to run for the U.S. Senate. Wilson replaced him, and in an unusual move, kept three of Meek’s staff. Lafleur was one of them.

“The void I feel from losing my friend and colleague of 23 years will never be filled,” said Joyce Postell, Wilson’s district director. “Shirlee was one of a kind and there was nothing she wouldn’t do to help others in need. Our community has suffered a great loss.”

Officially, Lafleur’s title was director of field operations. But she was the quintessential problem solver as she got locals out of immigration jams, passport mishaps and any number of requests that flowed into the district office.

“She developed a proficiency in helping people, solving problems,” said attorney Yolanda Cash Jackson, a partner at Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale, who first met Lafleur in Tallahassee. “I think it had to do with her passion for her people as the daughter of immigrants, to make sure that that part was done well.”

0406042634.JPG
Shirlee Moreau Lafleur, right, deputy district director for U.S. representative Kendrick Meek looks on as Ira J. Kurzban, a Miami attorney representing an exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, speaks at a March 1, 2004, press conference. To his left is North Miami Councilman Jacques Despinosse and to his right is North Miami Beach Councilman Philippe Derose. Ronna Gradus The Miami Herald

In a district with one of the highest concentrations of Haitians in the United States, Lafleur’s Haitian heritage and extensive contacts were an invaluable asset. She helped both Meek and Wilson navigate Haiti’s tumultuous politics and provided counsel on how they should approach a myriad of issues arising in the district that includes Miami, Miami Gardens, Miramar, Pembroke Pines and Hollywood.

“Most people connect her with doing immigration or doing passports. But Shirlee was a woman for all seasons. She would wrestle with international issues, but she would also wrestle with a lot of domestic issues,” said Wilson. “Shirlee was a champion for teachers, seniors, workers, people in nursing homes.”

When Wilson unveiled a makeshift cemetery with mock tombstones in North Miami in October to remember COVID-19 victims, Lafleur was at her side. In addition to helping Wilson memorialize the pandemic’s Black victims, Lafleur was determined “to feed America during the pandemic, especially the senior citizens,” Wilson said.

“She would organize these feedings,” said the congresswoman, recalling how one day she watched in astonishment as a sick Lafleur loaded her trunk with boxes of Popeyes fried chicken to feed senior citizens who were calling the district office saying they were hungry. “She was working every day trying to find out what we could do to help these people who weren’t eating, who didn’t have food.

“We’re in this pandemic now and a lot of people do not know that Shirlee has passed,” said Wilson, wrapped up in a blanket that Lafleur left her.

0410274465.JPG
Freshman Congressman Kendrick Meek talks on the phone in September 2003 as his staff prepared for a breakfast he was hosting as part of the Congressional Black Caucus. Staff members Shirlee Lafleur, right, and Regina Romero put folders together as Chief of Staff John Schelble points and directs. J. Albert Diaz Miami Herald Staff

A longtime member of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, Lafleur married her husband Pierre Paul at the well-known African American church in 2002. Together, they raised two daughters, Amanda and Samantha. A private person, Lafleur kept her illness to herself, not telling her boss or friends how serious her bout with liver cancer was. Still, aware that she was ill, Wilson encouraged her to take a break and rest as she underwent chemotherapy.

Lafleur would have none of it as she returned calls in between doctor’s appointments, delivered Popeyes chicken to senior citizens, and worked her Rolodex and her relationships to solve problems. The most recent was her successful effort at getting a kidnapped constituent safely out of Haiti after her release.

“The lives that she touched, the families that she touched, it’s just insurmountable,” said Wilson, who once sent Lafleur to China for a week and a half to represent the district at a Chinese educational conference.

Born November 10, 1969, Lafleur was a graduate of North Miami High School. She earned a degree in business administration from Florida International University, putting herself through college. One of her first jobs after graduation was as a supervisor with Miami Dade Team Metro, where she helped residents resolve often complex issues with county services.

Then in 1998 Lafleur went to work for Meek as a legislative assistant in his Florida Senate office. Gepsie Metellus was an aide to then-County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Schuler when she and Lafleur met and became friends. The two often compared notes about what it meant to work in an elected official’s office.

“It’s more about constituent services than people imagine, and I think that Shirlee perfected the art of serving her constituency and she did it so quietly, and so well and so powerfully,” Metellus said.

“She was this quiet servant, pulling all the ropes in the background, working hard to get it done but never trying to claim credit, never beating her chest and saying, ‘This was me, I did this,’ ” added Metellus, now a community activist and executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center.

Wilson, who is still in shock over Lafleur’s sudden death, tells the story about the one time that Lafleur couldn’t avoid the credit for saving someone from deportation. It was an undocumented Hispanic father of four, whose 18-year-old son had crashed a Haitian community forum at a North Miami Church Wilson was hosting with four members of Congress.

“He’s about to be deported tomorrow at 4 a.m.” 18-year-old Carlos Rivas informed Wilson about his dad. “What can you do? Is there any help you can try to give us?”

Over the next hours, while entertaining the congressional lawmakers over dinner at a Miami Beach restaurant, Wilson shuffled back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen, where Lafleur was working her cellphone. After several calls, Lafleur managed to roust an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official out of bed in the middle of the night to get him to stop the deportation.

The story made the Miami Herald headlines, with Lafleur getting the credit.

“She never failed to rise to the occasion,” Wilson said. “She was a good spirit, a magnificent person; she was the answer to every issue that I had.”

In addition to her husband and daughters, Lafleur is survived by her parents, Eugenie and Avenant Moreau Sr.; brother, Avenant Moreau Jr.; sister, Mirlanda M. Russ (Travelis); sister-in-law, Marie J. Pyram; nephews, nieces and many extended family members and friends.

A memorial in her honor will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday at St. Fort’s Funeral Home, 16480 NE 19th Ave., North Miami Beach. Her life will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, 21311 NW 34th Ave., Miami Gardens.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.