Portrait of an Upset

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

The faces in the crowd are as diverse as the district he represents: Coconut Grove attorney Tucker Gibbs; gay political consultant Ric Katz, who lives in Morningside; Haitian businessman Georges William of Shorecrest; and Wynwood activist Bill Rios. Standing in the shadows just outside the spotlight are lobbyists who feed off government: Chris Korge, Bill Perry, and Dewey Knight. "Anything you need from me, you can count on me," Korge says before leaving the festivities.

About an hour later, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo drops in. The mayor had campaigned against the three incumbent commissioners who were up for re-election: J.L. Plummer, Willy Gort, and Tomas Regalado. Gort and Regalado won, so the mayor is here to lock up Winton's allegiance by offering him the commission chairmanship. "My gift to you is a copy of Robert's Rules of Order," the mayor says cryptically. Winton is clueless. Carollo repeats himself. Winton still doesn't get it. His campaign manager, Alberto Lorenzo, deciphers the message. "No! No! No! I'm not qualified," Winton responds. Carollo says he should at least think about it.

Around midnight the few supporters who remain at Scotty's stagger out while employees drop the umbrellas and close the shutters. As Winton makes his way through the parking lot, it dawns on him that his parents don't know of his victory. He grabs his cell phone and dials the number of his folks' New Mexico ranch. "Is this Donna Winton?" he asks while walking toward city hall. "This is Commissioner Winton."

"I'm very humbled by this. It's a big job and I thank you," Winton comments after the upset
Steve Satterwhite
"I'm very humbled by this. It's a big job and I thank you," Winton comments after the upset
Winton's wife, Vickie, and toddler, Addison, wooed undecided voters at an old-age home
Steve Satterwhite
Winton's wife, Vickie, and toddler, Addison, wooed undecided voters at an old-age home

By uprooting Plummer from the Miami commission, the political neophyte had succeeded where more than a dozen others had failed. Winton, a self-made millionaire, presented himself as a populist to unseat the city's elder statesman. The district he conquered begins at the northern city limits in Shorecrest and runs south along Biscayne Bay to where Miami meets Coral Gables. It includes 28,980 registered voters, many of them in Miami's most affluent neighborhoods. A majority, 45 percent, are white. Hispanics make up 33 percent and blacks comprise 19 percent of the electorate. About three percent are from other ethnicities. Thus Winton's post is termed the Anglo seat.

Early in the campaign, the ultracompetitive Winton retained professional help. For about $4000 per month each, he hired political consultant Keith Donner, who created a master plan, and Lorenzo, who executed it. The experts knew things would be different in this election than in the past. Until 1996 commissioners were elected by citywide vote. Then, following the lead of the Miami-Dade Commission and the county school board, the city leaders sliced up their community into districts in 1997. Plummer was assigned the new District 2, which did not include the heart of his traditional support: Little Havana's elderly Cuban voters. Yet Donner and Lorenzo knew they still had something to worry about. There were substantial numbers of Hispanics in the Douglas Park and Silver Bluff neighborhoods. Indeed although most of District 2's registered voters were Anglo, Hispanics had cast the majority of ballots in recent elections.

To win, Donner and Lorenzo knew they would have to play politics the Miami way. They secured a mole in the Plummer camp, tailored their message to the various ethnic groups (including dubious allegations on Spanish radio), and raised intimidating amounts of money from the mostly Anglo downtown establishment. The campaign also tapped into strong anti-government sentiment. The 1996 indictments of then-City Manager Cesar Odio and Miller Dawkins, and the ensuing financial crisis had soured many voters on officeholders like Plummer. Their campaign would take advantage of a new political force, occasioned by the county commission's 1998 passage of a human-rights amendment. The experts aimed to claim the gay vote for their man.

From the start Winton, Donner, and Lorenzo realized the core of their strategy would be to bring out the Anglos. Thus Winton attended neighborhood association meetings from Morningside to Coconut Grove and stressed his platform: Improve city services and clean up the neighborhoods. Nothing earthshattering, but it played well with residents, who were fed up with overdevelopment in the Grove and bad decisions up and down the bayfront. Winton also subtly emphasized the Anglos' new power in the district-voting system.

Targeting Anglos who felt disenfranchised would not be enough, they knew. Winton needed to erode a significant portion of Plummer's support in the Cuban community. With Lorenzo's help he acquired a list of names and addresses of voters most likely to punch a ballot on November 2. He knocked on doors and listened to the people's problems through a translator. He followed up with Spanish-language advertising that criticized Plummer by, what else, linking him to Fidel Castro. One radio ad even suggested that Plummer, who does not speak Spanish, was responsible for $2000 in calls from city hall to Cuba between December 1996 and March 1999. Winton made the allegation despite the fact that an investigation by City Manager Donald Warshaw failed to identify the responsible party.

Winton courted the gay vote by attending a fundraising dinner for the Dade Human Rights Foundation, which successfully lobbied for the human-rights ordinance. Costumed as George Washington, "an honest politician," he attended a predominantly gay Halloween party in Morningside. The SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) Dade political action committee rewarded the challenger with an endorsement, donations, volunteers, and phone calls urging their members to vote. The strategy, perhaps a first in Miami politics, represented Winton's will to win and his liberal, Democratic Party beliefs.

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