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Miamah was set to begin its metamorphosis into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Plummer the bumpkin had to adapt or be swept away.
As Plummer sifts through papers in a converted garage at his funeral home, he receives a call from 82-year-old Dorothy Gramling, Miami's first female police officer. She met the commissioner during the city's centennial celebration three years ago; he was dressed as Christopher Columbus, white tights and all. They share some reminiscences, then she explains that she wants to prepay her own funeral. Plummer schedules an appointment to discuss the details.
This is where politics meets commerce, and controversy can be bad for business.
Miami-Dade voters have a history of choosing funeral directors for public office. Larry, Plummer's younger brother and also an undertaker, was elected to the state senate eight times from a South Dade district before his retirement in 1992. Athalie Range, Miami's first black commissioner, and Coral Gables City Commissioner W.L. Philbrick brought mortuary science into the political arena during the Sixties. Each appealed to constituents, and that translated into attracting customers.
Plummer's draw was a noncontroversial style: championing issues, like lowering crime, that were popular with the voters; standing firmly behind city employees at contract time; and avoiding criticism of his fellow commissioners.
Plummer mixes business and politics, former Miami Mayor David Kennedy says. Then Kennedy pokes fun at the commissioner. "There's J.L. Plummer trying to look sad at a $20,000 funeral," he recalls. "Many funeral directors went into politics in those days to drum up business."
Plummer quickly established himself as a micromanager, a penny pincher, and a law-and-order commissioner. It was at this point he picked up the moniker Commissioner Kojak for his now-infamous nightly drives through the city with a police radio and car phone at his side.
In 1975 the commissioner helped arrest three men who had beaten and robbed an elderly man downtown. Plummer spotted the attack, radioed the cops, and used his Cadillac to pin one of the hoodlums. He handcuffed the miscreant to a pole until Miami cops arrived. The other two robbers were later nabbed by police. Plummer's mug was splashed across newspapers nationwide, which led to congratulatory calls from friends as far away as Iowa. In following years he made political alliances at the city's cop shop and fire department, but also earned the ire of some for meddling in their affairs.
In 1976 Plummer was the first to help controversial Cuban radio commentator Emilio Milian when his legs were blown off by a car bomb in front of a Miami radio station. The commissioner, who was across the street at his funeral home when the blast rocked the block, applied tourniquets, then comforted Milian until paramedics arrived. He was later credited with helping save the commentator's life. "That was my most memorable experience out on the street," Plummer says.
Suburban flight hobbled the city in the early Seventies. In 1974 property taxes on private homes made up two-thirds of the tax base, while businesses contributed one-third. Then-Mayor Maurice Ferre sought to reverse the trend by transforming Miami's low-rise, sleepy downtown into a bustling hub of international commerce. Among the fruits of this effort: Brickell Avenue's banking and condominium corridor, the Hyatt Regency Miami and adjacent James L. Knight Center, and the Southeast and CenTrust (now NationsBank) bank towers.
These days Ferre is not kind when it comes to his former commission colleague. Plummer was more interested in fixing potholes and hiring cops than reversing the city's fortunes, the former mayor asserts. "[Plummer is] not a visionary. He does not see things in a big scope. He's a microperson," Ferre says. "For the most part he was an ally, but occasionally he went against me." Like when former Dolphins owner Joe Robbie wanted a new stadium for his aqua-and-orange football team. Ferre saw the pro franchise as a jewel the city needed to guard. In Plummer's eyes Robbie was a rich owner attempting to exploit taxpayers.
"What Joe Robbie wants, Joe Robbie gets," Plummer was fond of saying at commission meetings. In 1982 the miserly commissioner helped defeat Ferre's plan to impose a penny- sales tax that would have generated $120 million to refurbish the Orange Bowl and help pay for a baseball stadium or arena. Voters killed the plan by a 4-1 margin. "It wasn't a 100 percent solution, but an 80 percent solution would have been enough to keep the Dolphins in Miami," Ferre contends. "[Plummer] wasn't an ally."
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo sits and simmers at a June commission meeting. He's trying to avert a vote that would increase the mayor's powers, but halve his term. Then the anger spills forth. Carollo rails against the plan, calling it a coup attempt. Moments later he erupts. His colleagues pushing the vote are corrupt, he says. He fingers Commissioner Tomas Regalado's wife, Cuban radio host Raquel, as a leader of the conspiracy. The audience in the packed chamber sits in stunned silence.
Regalado defends his wife's honor. Joining the verbal fracas is Commissioner Arthur Teele, who dubs the mayor "a sissy" for mixing spouses and politics. (Teele later apologized to the gay community for the comment.) The situation degrades into a macho-man challenge.