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By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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As commission chairman J.L Plummer runs meetings like a circus ringmaster. With a witticism for nearly every situation, the commissioner seems to be hamming it up for the cable television cameras. When Arthur Teele recently asked to hear an architect's opinion on a zoning issue, Plummer reminded his fellow commissioner the man could not speak unless he registered as a lobbyist. "Mr. Teele, no tickee, no laundry," Plummer said acerbically.
Later in the day Plummer called for a break that would last no more than five minutes. "A real five-minute recess. Not mas o menos, a real five-minute recess," the chairman quipped. "I gotta go do something no one else can do for me."
When perennial commission gadflies Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga and Mariano Cruz request to speak on an issue, Plummer makes his discontent clear. "I vote to put you on a boat and send you out to sea," he says.
Unlike most of his fellow commissioners, who wear snazzy suits with silk ties and dine at the city's finest eateries, Plummer prefers a man-of-the people style. His wardrobe of polyester shirts and clip-on ties with a black digital watch has remained unchanged for years. The only signs of luxury are his purple Cadillac and the unlit cigar he keeps in his mouth. (He dropped a forty-year smoking habit six years ago.) He eats dinner every evening at the homey Maria's Greek Restaurant on Coral Way.
But his income tax returns indicate he can afford much more. In 1998 Plummer reported earnings of $116,285, $29,285 of which came from the City of Miami in salary and benefits. The remainder came from the funeral home. He also received another $21,000 in interest from bank accounts and dividends from investments. Regardless of the large cash flow, Plummer claimed enough deductions to receive a $13,665 refund from the Internal Revenue Service.
Despite his salt-of-the-earth persona, Plummer has no qualms accepting large contributions from special-interest groups. According to a campaign finance report filed this past July, he has accepted $131,995 in donations, nearly double the $70,335 garnered by challenger Johnny Winton. Nearly one-third of Plummer's money comes from developers and companies with interest in real estate development. It's no surprise that Winton, who rehabilitates old office buildings, received half his campaign money from construction companies and similar interests.
Some political observers predict Plummer may not be around to oversee another wave of construction. Winton argues the incumbent does not deserve to be re-elected because he did nothing to stem Miami's financial meltdown, repair urban decay, or improve its abysmal services. Since Plummer was not part of the solution, he must be part of the problem, Winton surmises. "Why didn't he ask questions about what was going on? Is he just tired?" asks political strategist Ric Katz. "An alert and aware commissioner would have seen things and taken action. He is going to suffer guilt by association."
And Winton has raised plenty of money to get his message out to the 42,000 registered voters in the district. By November his campaign should garner more than $100,000 for the election.
Plummer has three decades of politics on his side. When the new single-member districts were carved out in 1997, he got a fairly secure niche. In 1995 Plummer took two of every three votes cast in the 34 precincts that form the district along Miami's Upper Eastside, according to county voting records. Yet there are problems: The longest-serving commissioner will be the first to test the new single-member districts; disenchanted voters might flock to the polls for the first time, bad news for Plummer. "There will be a lot of people looking for new blood," opines Glenn Terry, a Coconut Grove activist. "Give somebody new a chance. The old city commission does not have an impressive record."