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.

He grew up in the town of Waycross in southeast Georgia. His father left home while Burke was still an infant; his mother "used to keep kids for a white family" but was mostly on welfare, Burke recalls. During the summers of his youth, he picked tobacco and cotton in the fields around Waycross. Though he was twice president of his high school class, his plans beyond graduation did not originally include academics. "Nobody in my family had ever gone to college," he says. "We had no idea, no dreams of it, nobody ever thought about it. In Waycross, if you were black, you either went into the armed forces or you went to work for the railroad-maintenance station. I'd assumed that would be what would happen to me." But in 1966, with the help of a school counselor who recognized the young man's promise, Burke secured a scholarship to attend Knoxville College, some 800 miles away in Tennessee, farther from home than he'd ever been.

After Knoxville Burke attended the University of Miami law school, graduating in 1973 alongside six other black students, including well-known Miami attorneys H.T. Smith and George Knox. He put his training to use at two community-based organizations that handled legal matters for poor clients and other nonprofit groups, and he served as president of the Miami branch of the NAACP from 1976 to 1978.

Burke had his first seductive taste of politics while working as an aide to the late state Rep. Gwen Cherry, whom he calls his first "political woman-tor" (as opposed to mentor). His initial bid for public office was an unsuccessful run for state house in 1978. After Cherry died in an auto accident the next year, he joined ten others vying for her empty seat, finishing third in a large pack behind Carrie Meek.

He wasn't through. On his third try, in 1982, Burke won a seat in the legislature, representing a district that covered a swath of north-central and northeast Dade. He retained the seat for five terms and counts among his greatest achievements two pieces of legislation he sponsored: the 1990 Civil Rights Act and the Martin Luther King Birthday Bill. Critics, however, say that considering the number of years he spent in office (ten) and the leverage he held (he served on various committees, chaired the House sub-committee on sales tax, and was speaker pro tempore from 1986 to 1988), Burke's accomplishments were minimal. "It seemed he wasn't that interested in getting bills passed," observes one legislative staffer who worked closely with Burke during his tenure. "He was riding, he wasn't driving."

When Carrie Meek entered Congress in 1992, Burke ran for her vacated Florida Senate seat but lost by 25 votes to then-Dade County School Board member William Turner. That same year, however, a federal court ordered Dade to elect its commissioners by single-member districts. Burke had been one of the plaintiffs in the 1986 voting-rights lawsuit that spurred the move. "I believed that it's something God ordained to happen that way, that the case was decided at just the time that I could run," he says of his candidacy for the brand-new District 2 seat. It was another squeaker, but this time Burke was victorious, defeating his main rival, Rev. Victor Curry, by 59 votes. He took office in April 1993.

Despite his legislative experience, Burke has not been a political dynamo on the fledgling commission. But neither has he been inert. He sponsored a countywide curfew for juveniles, applauded by many as a tough anticrime measure. And he spearheaded the drive to have Dade named a federal "empowerment zone," which would result in about $200 million in grants and tax breaks for the county. Both initiatives are up in the air: The curfew is tied up in court on an ACLU challenge, and the empowerment-zone effort is still pending and largely in the hands of the White House.

"Jimmy's one of the people that I as chairman can rely upon to frame an issue with a view toward keeping harmony and peace and moving the process further," comments Art Teele, chairman of the Metro Commission. "Frequently we get people so locked into their positions that they don't move off their point. Jimmy's skilled in the art of compromise."

Other sources closely connected to the commission commend Burke for working hard at his job and putting in long hours. Many of these same people, however, point out that his efforts are often undermined by his lack of rhetorical skill. "I've been frustrated as hell," exclaims a staffer who works for one of Burke's fellow commissioners. "He tends to go into speech patterns where he just rambles on until he's tired of hearing himself talk, and he fails to make a point."

His less-than-articulate presence on the commission notwithstanding, Burke compiled an admirable attendance record during his first year in office: Of 2044 commission votes, he missed a mere 206, fewer than any commissioner besides Dennis Moss. While he maintained this presence on the dais, though, his private life was anything but consistent.

He was suffering through a protracted separation from his wife, State Rep. Beryl Burke. The two had met in Tallahassee in the mid-1980s, when he was a legislator and she was a staff analyst for a House committee. At the time, by his own and others' admissions, Burke was something of a ladies' man. (Married four times, Burke has five children: one from his first marriage, two from his third, plus one born out of wedlock before he was married for the first time, and another from a relationship that followed his second marriage. He also has six grandchildren.) "Jimmy is a very likable individual," offers Art Teele, who was in private law practice in Tallahassee when he first met Burke. "He's not rude, he's not abusive, he's not vulgar. Women tend to gravitate to him. They trust him. And many feel he's the kind of guy they want to marry. Like with all too many of us, Jimmy's problems A the controversy A swirls around the private life. What else can a handsome, young, professional, single male have but controversy?"

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