Burke Besieged

The Florida Elections Commission and the Florida Bar. Maybe the FBI, too. For a man who won automatic re-election, Metro Commissioner James Burke seems to have a lot of explaining to do.

Nobody is having more fun at the Commissioner James Burke Labor Day Family Picnic than Commissioner James Burke himself. "Welcome!" he says to guests filing through the gates of Arcola Lakes Community Park, just north of Liberty City. "And oh boy, are you gonna have a good time today!" As a six-piece junkanoo band rattles into motion, Burke, his beefy frame squeezed into black jeans, a white T-shirt, and running shoes, leads the ensemble and a procession of Boy Scouts on a hip-swinging loop through the park.

Moments later he's on-stage, cordially playing host to the dozens of judicial, school board, and legislative candidates who have turned out wearing eponymously labeled T-shirts and armed with stacks of eponymously labeled flyers to schmooze a few extra votes before the September 8 election. But the commissioner really comes alive as he introduces the entertainment ("One of my favorites!"): Barney the Dinosaur and Baby Bop. Two actors bound into view dressed in the purple-and-green costumes of the popular children's cartoon characters. Burke leaps to the ground and leads a pack of small kids in a rush of the stage. His cellular phone wedged in a back pocket, he joins Barney and Baby Bop in choreographed renditions of songs from the cartoon show. The commissioner appears to know almost all the words.

On the face of it, these are good days for James Clarence Burke. He is chairman of the Metro Commission's finance committee, which oversees Dade's monetary affairs and its $2.3 billion budget. And he has a lock on his District 2 commission seat for another four-year term; his only foe dropped out of the race in late July. Still, the picnic frivolities belie the fact that the commissioner's life of late has been anything but a romp in the park.

In recent weeks, he has come under the scrutiny of state elections officials and the Florida Bar, not to mention the media. (An attorney, Burke was suspended from the Bar in 1991 and has applied for reinstatement.) The inquiries, in part, concern allegations that Burke misused his own campaign funds in the 1994 re-election race. Now it appears he may also be drawn into a federal investigation involving extraordinary allegations by his erstwhile District 2 opponent: Former candidate Roy Hardemon claims he was coerced off the slate by physical threat and was offered a bribe to remain out of the race.

The public beleaguerment of Burke is also a reflection of a personal life in shambles. Since taking office in the spring of 1993, as his marriage crumbled and his bank accounts hit a low ebb, the commissioner has become something of a nomad, moving between friends' homes and sleeping on couches around town.

"[Public officials] have private lives, too, and I think people forget that," Burke said several days before his Labor Day picnic, during a lengthy, wide-ranging interview held in the conference room of his new commission district headquarters on NE 125th Street in North Miami. After a few reschedulings, Burke had granted New Times two in-person interviews. The first was an hourlong session, to which the commissioner brought his chief aide, as well as a tape recorder. At the second, a three-hour interview held four days later, the tape recorder was again present but not the aide. A third, shorter conversation was held over the phone. Though his aides had said the long session would be conducted in the presence of an attorney and a political consultant, at the last moment Burke decided against the backup. "I'm probably like too many people who feel the guilty need lawyers," he explained.

Throughout the discussions, Burke was courteous and patient, if a little tense. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt for the first interview, and a pinstripe shirt with floral-print tie for the second, he sat straight up in his chair, his torso pressed snugly against the edge of the conference-room table. Behind him, along the walls, hung about 100 plaques, certificates, and awards given to Burke by community and church groups, universities, and governmental organizations. The commissioner's manner was noticeably absent of the righteous indignation that so often characterizes politicians who are under fire; not once did he raise his voice. But his answers were punctuated by heavy sighs, seeming gusts of pentup pressure and frustration. His speech, made muddy with the residual accent of his native Georgia, was characterized by an apparent habit of talking before thinking, a tendency to give a convoluted and grammatically clumsy response that stumbled far from the pending question.

"The worst thing that can happen is, well, if somebody says, 'You don't need to be in office,' and they take away this office," Burke said at one point, when asked about the possible outcome of the ongoing inquiries. "And let's say the Bar says, 'You don't need to be in the Bar, you don't need to be a lawyer...,'" he went on, his voice tinged with melancholy. "I can think of all the things that can be the worst negative, and I still am confident with who I am and what I can do."

That Burke seems to lack the hubris, the studied synthesis of formality and swagger one would expect of a 46-year-old politician inhabiting the blustery milieu of Dade County government, is particularly surprising, given that he's spent nearly all of the past twelve years in elected office. But then, it's safe to say he wasn't born with a sense of divine right to much.

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