The Don

Adrift in Miami's fierce political maelstrom, Donald Warshaw is one cool customer

Info:Correction Date: 07/30/1998
Info:
The Don

Adrift in Miami's fierce political maelstrom, Donald Warshaw is one cool customer

Tristram Korten
Donald Warshaw enters a back room in Miami City Hall filled with political types and lawyers. He tells a joke, then settles into a cushy swivel chair. No one says a word as the television broadcasts the beginning of a special city commission session called to discuss whether the 55-year-old Brooklyn native will be named Miami city manager. Warshaw holds two of the most powerful and perhaps undesirable political positions in all of South Florida at this moment: Miami police chief and interim city manager. He's not sure how long he can hold on to both. Warshaw fidgets with his watch as the five men begin what has become a ritual dance of power with Mayor Joe Carollo. For the second time, the mayor has fired City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. And for the second time, commissioners -- who disdain the mayor's tactics -- are convening to discuss overriding the mayor's decision.

The commissioners fret about this very public display of governmental dysfunction. One describes it as "a circus." Another calls it a "boondoggle" and a "mockery." But they follow the script. They vote unanimously to reinstate Garcia-Pedrosa, thereby displacing Warshaw.

Warshaw chuckles and, as a bunch of cops gathers around to tease him about losing his job, says, "Welcome me back, boys. I'm just the chief again!"

Warshaw didn't always take city hall's theater of the absurd as lightly as he did on that June 15. In fact, during the last two years -- and especially the last seven months -- his limits have been tested. The normally jocular police chief has reluctantly cooperated with federal investigators as they busted the man who hired him, former City Manager Cesar Odio; survived a monthlong siege by former Mayor Xavier Suarez, who tried to oust him from the police department; and was appointed city manager three times and fired twice.

As a result, Warshaw has traveled to his emotional edge and back, at one point breaking down in tears in his office before regaining the resolve to fight back. He stared down Suarez, who he says tried to involve him in making a political show of Cuban leader Jorge Mas Canosa's funeral. And he took some comfort in daily phone calls to his mother in Broward County during the most difficult days.

The chief's recent adventures have been more than just a wild ride for one city official. They have provided insight into a political culture where changes in power are convulsive and where the end is swift and cruel for the losers. And they have been revealing about Warshaw, who so far has avoided losing.

Donald Howard Warshaw is oddly cast as top cop -- or city manager -- in one of America's most violent cities. With his shiny pate, gravelly voice, and hang-dog eyes, he's more like a kindly uncle. He's a friendly, white, Jewish guy who started police work late in life in a city that is a steamy ethnic mix often on the verge of exploding. But since he was appointed chief July 7, 1994, his calm, noncontroversial manner has been an antidote to Miami's racially charged social and political infirmities.

He was raised by two New York City school teachers in a middle-class home. After graduating from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, he opted not to go to college. Instead he moved quickly through humdrum office jobs and then started his own business, an executive headhunting firm on Madison Avenue. He closed it in a bad year and ditched New York for good in 1971 to move to Miami, a place he had visited only once. In 1972 Warshaw joined the Miami Police Department, at age 29. He was older by far than most of the other rookies, and apparently smarter.

Warshaw spent a mere five years on patrol before his superiors noted his business acumen and yanked him into an office in 1977. Over the next few years, the future chief's business background paid off as he wrote grants, analyzed budgets, and implemented special programs.

In 1984 Warshaw was promoted to major in charge of the business management section. The years that followed were tumultuous for Miami police. The city was shaken by almost yearly street disturbances, as well as by the 1985 Miami River Cops scandal, in which twenty officers were eventually brought down in a scandal involving theft of drugs from smugglers and the drowning of two. Public confidence in the department ebbed even further when hundreds of officers were rushed through the department's screening process. Warshaw's role, never fully recognized, was critical. As officer in charge of training new recruits and performing these background checks, he tried to restore credibility by more thoroughly screening applicants. He hid nothing from either his superiors or the public about the department's flaws. "A lot of police culture during these years was to say nothing about anything. I like to think we've broken that mold. To hide behind mistakes erodes trust." In 1992 he was promoted to assistant chief.

In keeping with the sudden shifts in power typical of Miami, Warshaw's later ascent to the police department's number-one spot was unexpected. In July 1994, Chief Calvin Ross left to head the newly created state Department of Juvenile Justice. After Ross departed, City Manager Cesar Odio had to decide quickly on a successor. He chose Warshaw for the $106,000 post. "I think the fact that it happened so fast was beneficial to me," Warshaw says. "If he had 30 days to select a chief, the lobbying would have begun."

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