Portrait of an Upset

Johnny Winton used anti-incumbent backlash, new district boundaries, and plenty of cash to knock off J.L. Plummer

It's 7:30 p.m. and Johnny Winton just wants a nap. After a thirteen-hour mad dash from precinct to precinct on election day, his thirteen-year-old daughter Julie greets the Miami City Commission candidate at the door with a hug. His wife, Vickie, carrying the couple's toddler, Addison Hunter, follows with a kiss. The candidate locks himself in the bedroom of his large Bay Heights home. Forty-five minutes later Winton throws open the door and emerges wearing a gray suit with a white dress shirt and red tie. "What? I'm not winning?" he quips while grabbing a cold bottle of Budweiser from a small refrigerator built into a bar. The candidate takes a sip while walking toward the kitchen for a bite to eat.

"Hurry up, Dad. They are going to show your results!" his fifteen-year-old-son Matt yells from the television room. Winton sprints into the spacious area containing an L-shaped couch, a 25-inch television in the corner, and sliding glass doors that lead to a 35-foot swimming pool. He still has the beer in hand when the Miami-Dade County Elections Department flashes the tally for the District 2 race on the screen: Winton is at 48 percent. Incumbent J.L. Plummer is in the thirties. The challenger leaps, screams "Woo!" and begins hugging people. "Only two more points to go over the top," he bellows. Then he covers his saucerlike blue eyes with his hands. "I don't want to look. This is hard," he complains then kisses his wife on the lips. Five minutes later a new tally is shown. "Fifty-two! Fifty-two!" Winton announces as he thrusts his arms in the air.

But what goes up must come down. Winton senses this. "Now they'll get a bad precinct and it'll drop to 40 percent," he muses. He takes another swig of the Bud. "I'm getting goose bumps again. I'm a nervous wreck," he exclaims while pacing in circles on the terrazzo floor. Sitting around him are his wife's parents, her brothers and sisters, and several others. By 8:45 p.m. Winton plummets to 45 percent and Plummer rises to 40 percent; if no candidate gets 50 percent, there will be a runoff. "Shit," he mutters after seeing the new results. "I'm tired of watching this." He hangs his head and walks into the kitchen.

The pressure weighs on the candidate. He drums his fingers on the dark gray Formica counter. Then he grabs a stack of paper plates with a fruit design and taps it on the rectangular breakfast table. Next he sits in a chair and taps his feet on the floor. "Plummer is up again!" someone reports from the television room. Winton slumps in his seat. Then he shares what's bugging him: "It's still amazing to me that many people vote for that sorry son of a bitch."

Two men walk into the room. Matt Hesslin, a short, stocky businessman from California dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, and Dave Graef, a silver-haired man with a thin, tan, weathered face, try to console their friend. "It was much funner at 52 percent," says the office seeker. "This is not fun."

Then another update: "49 percent to 38 percent. Winton!" someone yells. The candidate recovers his enthusiasm and darts back to the television room. By 9:00 he has inched just over 50 percent with only two precincts left to report. He grabs another beer and hugs Vickie. "I don't have any thoughts," he responds when asked how he feels. "I'm blank. It's pure nerves."

The screen remains stuck on the same results for about fifteen minutes. More than 100 anxious well-wishers await a victory party at Scotty's Landing, a wooden shack of a bar on Biscayne Bay that is a stone's throw from city hall. Winton says he won't join them until the results are final. "What the hell is the deal?" he complains. "What the hell are they doing? This is torture!" Several telephone calls convince him to leave for the fete. At 9:30 Winton packs the family into a Ford Windstar minivan for the short drive south, then instructs Vickie's parents, Jim and Mary Bartlett, to watch the television and call his cell phone with final results. As Winton straps tiny Addison into a car seat, someone screams from inside the house: "100 percent reported! Winton at 53 percent!" Vickie sprints through the front door repeating the results. Winton doesn't hear her. Then she hurries to his side and repeats the good news. "No! No! Oh my God!" the newly anointed commissioner exclaims. "We gotta go see the people! I wanna know the final numbers! Yeah! Yeah! Oh my God!"

As Hesslin pilots the minivan south on Bayshore Drive toward Scotty's, the newly crowned commissioner's two older children start singing Queen's rock/sports anthem, "We Are the Champions." The moment overwhelms the commissioner-elect. He puts his head down, covers his face, and sobs. The reality of unseating a 29-year incumbent hits him. Hesslin parks at city hall. Winton's son Matt notes, "Dad, I can see your office from here." Surrounded by his family, the commissioner walks toward a happy mob chanting "Johnny! Johnny!" Before Winton enters the restaurant, supporters and television crews with cameras shining bright lights gather around him. "You all did it!" he shouts as tears stream down his red cheeks.

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