Portrait of an Upset

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

In 1990 Winton changed the company name to Wynco Realty. Four years later he went from middleman to main man, when he bought the Palmetto Office Park on Coral Way, near the Palmetto Expressway. The five buildings include 66,000 square feet of office space. Three months after the purchase, Wynco acquired Americas Center in downtown Miami, a ten-million-dollar building that Winton had been managing for several years. These days the fourteen-story office/retail building on SE Second Avenue also houses Wynco headquarters.

Just as his business took off, Winton began anew in his personal life by marrying again. In January 1994 he wed then-38-year-old paralegal Vickie Bartlett. In June 1998 the couple purchased a three-bedroom, three-bathroom $275,000 home in the exclusive Bay Heights neighborhood of Miami. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Addison was born two months later. The businessman coos like an infant when he holds the toddler. "How's my boogs?" Winton says, using a nickname his wife coined. "This is the best thing that could have happened to me."

Anglo Winton was not afraid to walk (with interpreter Anisia Cid) for votes in Miami's Hispanic neighborhoods
Steve Satterwhite
Anglo Winton was not afraid to walk (with interpreter Anisia Cid) for votes in Miami's Hispanic neighborhoods
Winton: "I realized I had lost contact with the ordinary Joe Blows out there"
Steve Satterwhite
Winton: "I realized I had lost contact with the ordinary Joe Blows out there"

It's a Tuesday night in December 1998 at Norman's restaurant in Coral Gables. Dark wood adorns the walls and Mexican tile covers the floor. Blumberg, Cancela, and Winton sit at a table tucked away in a corner. The two chamber-of-commerce heavyweights are making a final push to sell Winton on the idea of seeking office. They note his frustrations as a member of the city's Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the private Downtown Ad-Hoc PropertyOwners Committee. The groups have often urged commissioners to invest in the central city, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile fire protection and parking fees have skyrocketed.

Cancela tells the pair he has decided not to run; his expanding Spanish-language radio empire simply is taking up too much time. Blumberg plays on Winton's sense of duty. "Somebody needs to be courageous enough to do it," Blumberg tells Winton. "If you aren't going to, who will?" Winton's response: "Damn it! I'll do it."

Blumberg soon agrees to contribute $5500 to the campaign. Though the state limits contributions to $500 per individual, Blumberg gives through a series of companies that he owns, like Blumberg Brickell, Inc., and Blumberg/Alhambra Partners. And the developer steers others to Winton. Another $5250 in donations come from companies based at Flagler Station, 48 East Flagler St. The building's owner, Natan Rok, has plans for several major downtown developments. Moreover during the entire campaign, nearly half of Winton's contributions came from real estate and development-related companies with Miami addresses.

Despite Winton's prodigious fundraising ability, he ran out of money two months before the election, in September, and was forced to invest $10,000 of his own money into the campaign. "I developed a plan based on commitments and when [some people didn't] follow through, then it screwed up the plan," Winton says. "It has been my biggest source of disappointment and frustration."

Desperate to raise the $50,000 that Lorenzo said he needed to run credibly against Plummer's war chest of nearly a quarter-million dollars, Winton allowed lobbyist Chris Korge to enter the campaign. The renowned rainmaker is linked to many politicians, including Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Throughout the campaign he frequently offered advice and sources of cash to Winton. Although early in the effort the hopeful had declined such help, on October 14 he strolled into Korge's downtown law practice and spent eight hours calling potential donors from a list produced by the lobbyist. The net take was $3500.

Korge says he expects nothing in return. The lobbyist claims he has a personal vendetta against Plummer, who helped remove him from a job as attorney for the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority (MSEA). Korge even claims he does not conduct business in the city.

Despite the significant assistance extended by Korge and the others, Winton insists he is not for sale. "I have 100 percent control over me. I never want to be accused in the newspaper of being under the influence of someone else," he says. "Government should be an open process."

It's five days before the election, and Lorenzo is slowly pacing around Wynco headquarters like a general inspecting the troops. The campaign manager enters an office occupied by Charles Intriago, a silver-haired, red-faced former federal prosecutor, who sits behind a wooden desk. A black phone is glued to Intriago's ear. The volunteer gives the bulky campaign manager a thumbs up, then dials the number of 69-year-old Daisy Penalaza of Coconut Grove.

In Spanish that he acquired in his native Ecuador, "Carlos Intriago," a concerned neighbor, introduces himself and makes his best Winton pitch. He describes some of the latest scandals, says it's time for change, and then asserts the challenger can do it. Penalaza responds with an earful about politicians' broken promises. "Take it from an old resident of Miami. I'm tired of what is happening in the city. It's time for a change," says Intriago, who lives in the North Grove. After five minutes Penalaza pledges her support for Winton. "No one's hung up on me yet," Intriago comments. "This is looking all right."

Lorenzo, dressed in an olive-green suit, cracks a crooked smile and leaves to check on the seven other volunteers dialing for voters.

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