Commissioner Kojak

No ideas, no agenda, and a lot of glad-handing. Welcome to J.L. Plummer's re-election campaign.

With a couple of bangs of his trusty gavel, Plummer can halt the spectacle by stopping the meeting. But the commission chairman does not, despite pleas for order from some audience members. He just sits there, sometimes folding his hands, sometimes shrugging his shoulders, sometimes looking at the ceiling.

Only when name-calling and finger-pointing take over does Plummer grab the gavel, pound away, and call a five-minute recess. "I was elected to do a job, not to fight," Plummer comments, a slight Southern lilt flavoring his speech.

During the Eighties such episodes were common on the Dinner Key dais. Political rivalries and anti-communist posturing transformed stale meetings into biweekly wars of words. As the commission slashed funding for the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture and snubbed Nelson Mandela because of anti-communist outrage, Plummer sided with his Cuban colleagues. Plummer also knew which side to take when over 100,000 refugees migrated from the island nation to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. He understood the new residents would soon transform Hispanics into the city's largest voting bloc. Plummer adapted and the strategy paid off in votes: He was elected time and again. "[Plummer] was focusing on one segment of the city at the expense of the others," says Ric Katz, a political strategist.

The funeral director, dressed here as Christopher Columbus for the city's centennial, discovered that politics and business mix well
Juan A. Juig
The funeral director, dressed here as Christopher Columbus for the city's centennial, discovered that politics and business mix well
Companion Maria Cristina "Macu" Palacios helps gringo Plummer fit into Miami's Cuban community
Companion Maria Cristina "Macu" Palacios helps gringo Plummer fit into Miami's Cuban community

Take Plummer's last election in 1995, when Cuban Americans Manolo Reyes and Margarita Ruiz entered the fray. The incumbent took 41 percent of the votes cast in Little Havana's 21 precincts. Reyes placed second with 31 percent and Ruiz garnered 28 percent. Despite his ethnic handicap in a mostly Hispanic city, Plummer coasted to a citywide 56 percent victory. Indeed he has never been forced into a runoff, though he has drawn up to five challengers. Except for a few years when veteran pol Steve Clark was Miami's mayor, Plummer has survived as the lone gringo commissioner for more than a decade.

One reason: his long-time Cuban girlfriend Maria Cristina "Macu" Palacios, whom he started dating after he divorced. She is often at his side when he travels through the Hispanic community. "He has always had the Cuban vote, even against other Cubans," notes Tomas Regalado, a Cuban American. "Cubans tend to respect the idea of an Anglo seat on the commission and his support of the Cuban community has helped him retain it."

Plummer has also built a bridge into African-American neighborhoods, albeit one that he uses infrequently, black leaders say. When three race riots in the Eighties destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars in property throughout Miami's predominantly black areas, Commissioner Kojak hit the street to help calm a nervous city. "[Plummer] was out there in his car talking to the community," recalls Ferre.

Plummer drove through the black districts, but never did much else for them, comments Garth Reeves, publisher emeritus of the black-oriented newspaper the Miami Times. "He hasn't done a whole lot to help us, but he hasn't done a whole lot to hurt us," Reeves says. "No one would call him a fired-up liberal. He is sort of middle-of-the-road."

Plummer's penchant for one-liners backfired in 1992, when he labeled former Assistant Police Chief Arnold Gibbs, who is black, and another officer "monkeys." Plummer was angered by the chief's criticism of a plan to eliminate the department's media-relations unit. Some blacks, along with several police officers, protested the remark at the next commission meeting. Plummer apologized, explaining it slipped out.

Tension between Plummer and Miami's ethnic groups escalated in 1994, when an anonymous complaint was filed against the commissioner with the State Attorney's Office (SAO). It accused Plummer of interfering in a police matter involving one Hispanic and two black officers. Authorities had accused the trio of overbilling for after-hours security jobs. Only the Hispanic was suspended during the investigation, resulting in rumblings of unfair treatment. The anonymous complainant alleged Plummer met privately with then-City Manager Cesar Odio and threatened to publicize the issue if the black officers were not taken off the job. The cops were eventually suspended. Although it's illegal for commissioners to intercede in administrative matters, SAO investigators dropped the case when they could not substantiate the charge.

Plummer has lived in a $200,000, three-bedroom, three-bathroom house on Halissee Street in Coconut Grove for more than 30 years. Many neighbors complain he inadequately represents his own community. Among his sins: standing by while large shopping malls were built in the area's business district and office towers and condominiums were constructed along Bayshore Drive. The residents claim he ignored the transformation of SW 27th Avenue from a street lined by homes into a commercial corridor. "He is not an environmentalist," notes attorney Tucker Gibbs, who is active in Grove affairs. "He is a builder's friend."

To help develop the Grove's waterfront, Plummer convinced the commission in 1985 to steer ten million dollars proposed for Miami Arena construction to improve the Coconut Grove Convention Center and city-owned property on Dinner Key. In the process the arena lost more than 3000 seats and eight luxury boxes. The lack of those amenities was a major reason the Miami Heat decided to abandon the eleven-year-old structure. (Next year the team will move into the nearby American Airlines Arena, which is partially taxpayer-financed.)

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