Portrait of an Upset

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

Welcome to Al Lorenzo's phone bank operation, where stacks of data combine with old-fashioned persuasion to produce Winton supporters. Every night at 6:00 for the last two weeks of the campaign, volunteers took over Winton's office. Sometimes they were college students brought by young volunteer T.J. Wright; other times they were Wynwood residents of all ages. They targeted District 2 voters who cast ballots in at least three of the past five elections, according to information (which originated with the Miami-Dade County Elections Department) processed by data specialist Hugh Cochran. Some callers used a script. Others, like Intriago, developed their own spiel.

Plummer supporters were quickly, and politely dispatched with. Winton backers were reminded to talk to their friends about the candidate. Names of the undecided and obdurate were recorded on a list for follow-up phone calls and propaganda. Lorenzo figured the telephone system would garner 500 to 2000 ballots for his candidate. "This is the best system to identify your support and target the undecided," says Lorenzo.

Phone banking, combined with an ability to mobilize voters on election day, have distinguished Lorenzo in recent Miami-Dade elections. He has worked on dozens of campaigns since 1993. In 1997 he ran a phone banking operation and transported voters for Carollo's campaign against Xavier Suarez in the bitter mayoral race. The following year Lorenzo managed former elementary schoolteacher Marta Perez's challenge of incumbent Renier Diaz de la Portilla for the Miami-Dade County School Board District 8 seat. After Perez walked the west Miami-Dade neighborhoods in the district, she pulled an upset: 52 to 48 percent. The same year Lorenzo employed the unusual tactic of hiring eight drivers to transport 750 of Gus Barreiro's supporters to the polls in his run for the State House. The rookie Republican from Miami Beach won by 428 votes.

Winton's unoriginal message of rebuilding neighborhoods even brought "amens" from the congregation of this  Haitian Church
Steve Satterwhite
Winton's unoriginal message of rebuilding neighborhoods even brought "amens" from the congregation of this Haitian Church
The downside of ousting a 29-year incumbent: The public's expectations are that much higher
Steve Satterwhite
The downside of ousting a 29-year incumbent: The public's expectations are that much higher

Lorenzo has a Marlon Brando quality about him; his stocky, macho build seems out-of-sync with his soft, raspy voice. He needs a secretary. His daily planner is notes jotted down on scraps of paper. His office consists only of a tiny Nokia cell phone and the beige leather back seat of his GMC sport utility vehicle. For the Winton effort he stored campaign literature on the floor of a small office at Wynco headquarters. Behind the disorganized façade, though, is an intensely competitive man. His mind races from detail to detail. As he prepares a mailer highlighting the differences between Winton and Plummer, he plots Cuban radio ads and prepares a response in case of a last-minute attack by the incumbent.

Lorenzo's journey to the United States followed a route taken by many Cuban exiles. He was born in Managua, a small town near Havana. His father, Ruperto, fled the communist island in 1962 on a Spanish freighter and sought asylum in Colombia. About a month later the elder Lorenzo arrived in Miami and started working at an aluminum factory in Hialeah. In the summer of 1963, Alberto and his mother, Maria Luisa, came to Miami via Mexico City. The Lorenzos settled in what is now called Little Haiti. When Alberto reached tenth grade, the family moved to Hialeah. At Hialeah High, Alberto excelled in baseball on a team that included Bucky Dent, who went on to play for the New York Yankees. Lorenzo was an outfielder when the school won the state title in 1969. A hamstring injury during his senior year kept him from winning a college scholarship and trying out for the major leagues.

After graduation in 1970, at his parents urging, Al Lorenzo entered Miami-Dade Community College. Two years later he joined Florida International University's first junior class. In 1974 he received a bachelor's degree in business administration, entered a Southeast Bank management training program, and married his high school sweetheart, Magda. Their daughter, Michelle Marye, was born the following year. But the young couple grew apart and divorced in 1981.

Lorenzo bounced around several Miami financial institutions, including two short stints in 1984 and 1987 as vice president of Global Bank. There he met Hialeah power broker Herman Echevarria, who was part-owner of the failed savings and loan. In 1987 he met and married his second and current wife, Maggie. Four years later he began a career as a business consultant. His son, Alberto Jr., was born in 1992.

In 1993 Lorenzo received his introduction to big-city politics when an investment banker named Wilfredo Gort asked Lorenzo to help him run for the Miami City Commission. Lorenzo's business was failing, so he had ample time to volunteer. Former Miami Mayor and now political consultant David Kennedy, who ran the campaign, saw Lorenzo every day at the headquarters and was impressed. "I took a liking to him, and I needed a Hispanic partner," Kennedy recalls. "I found a guy who was bright and taught him what I knew."

Lorenzo displays his ability to stretch a metaphor while explaining his relationship with the former mayor. "Kennedy was the architect of the campaign, and I acted as the construction manager who built the building."

From the start of his work with Winton, Lorenzo says he understood the candidate had charm. His blue eyes and easygoing demeanor would be compelling if he met voters face to face. At the campaign manager's urging, Winton headed out on June 1. After leaving his home, he hung a left and knocked on the door of a potential voter three houses down. The neighbor turned out to be a staunch Plummer supporter. The negative response almost crushed Winton's will to walk. But he persevered and eventually found friendlier doors. "[Lorenzo] told me that in the end [meeting voters] would be the greatest reward," Winton says. "And you know what? He was right."

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