Portrait of an Upset

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

Winton's approach is not exactly orthodox. If he doesn't know the answer to a question, he admits his ignorance rather than manufacture a nebulous statement. On three occasions in New Times's presence, Winton argued with potential voters, even advising four of them to vote for Plummer. The businessman also said he really didn't want the job but felt obligated to run. If he lost, no big deal, he would return to making money at his real estate company. If he won, he would not commit to a second term. "Winton was so refreshing. I don't think I ever heard anything like him," comments Tucker Gibbs, a Grove activist. "What you see is what you get."

Winton's place among wealthy business owners also makes him a rarity in Miami politics. The candidate acknowledges that his affluence has pushed him into a social stratosphere that rarely allows contact with working folks. "So I went out to the neighborhoods and met blue-collar laborers and schoolteachers. I realized I had lost contact with the ordinary Joe Blows out there," Winton comments. "I was essentially back in the environment I grew up in. I learned that no matter what walk of life they come from, there are lots of good people in the world."

The fluctuating election results played with Winton's emotions like a yo-yo
Steve Satterwhite
The fluctuating election results played with Winton's emotions like a yo-yo

Five o'clock in the morning on November 2, election day. Winton wakes up hungry but can't eat; his nerves won't let him. He has slept for only about half an hour. He is tired and eager to get the day over with. Wearing a white dress shirt, dark blue slacks, and a red tie, the candidate kisses his family goodbye and bolts out of the house. By 6:30 a.m. he has arrived at election headquarters: the Fraternal Order of Police union headquarters on Calle Ocho. Though the cops endorsed Plummer, they lent Winton the use of their facility. It's raining, and Lorenzo has said election-day showers favor the incumbent. Just one more thing to worry about. Then Winton realizes he has misplaced his cell phone. "I figured that," Lorenzo pipes up. "I got one for you."

Eloy Garcia introduces himself as Winton's driver for the day. The fit firefighter, a bundle of energy, pilots Winton's Cherokee to a majority Cuban precinct at Silver Bluff Elementary School. Poll workers, some volunteer, some paid, distribute cards bearing their candidates' names and punch numbers. Rosa Maria Bernal hangs at the end of the line, closest to the poll entrance. Bernal stalks undecided voters with a quick lecture, then pushes Winton's card into their hands. "Remember to vote against Plummer," Bernal pitches a young mother as she drags her daughter to school. "We have to make a change." The process amuses Winton. "What a zoo this is," he comments while observing the operation.

Around midday they make their way to a precinct inside Fire Station No. 8 in the Grove. Later they head to Northeast Miami. Winton tells his poll workers the campaign is going strong and urges them to keep up their efforts. During a late afternoon stop at Wynwood's Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community Center, Garcia honks his horn to inspire the five poll workers clustered on NW Second Avenue. Winton lowers the passenger window, sticks his head out the window, and cheers as he punches his fist in the air. His son Matt, sitting in the back seat, laughs.

On the way to Shorecrest, Garcia comments on Winton's peculiar behavior. "You know what ... I hope to God you never change. I hope to God politics doesn't change you," the firefighter says. "You are sincere right now, and those people love you because of it. I hope you don't let them down."

Winton pauses for a minute. "I hope I don't change either."

What can be expected from the freshman commissioner? His campaign showed Winton can move quickly to achieve something he believes in. He took orders from Lorenzo and executed them well. He was charming. He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

But from his first day in office, Winton's commission colleagues have outsmarted him. Moments after the election, fellow commissioner Arthur Teele moved into Plummer's old office, probably the largest place with the best view at city hall. Though tradition called for Winton to take over his vanquished opponent's digs, Teele got there first.

Winton also lost out by being appointed to oversee MSEA on November 16. Each commissioner directs a powerful body like the DDA or the Bayfront Park Trust, which supervises affairs at the city's central park. The MSEA appointment, which Winton termed satisfactory, has little future. The authority's central task is to control the Miami Arena, which will be overshadowed by the new American Airlines facility after January 1.

Winton could make up for both slights, though, if Carollo appoints him commission chairman, which is still a possibility. And he'll pick up on the customs of city hall quickly. Experts give him six months to learn the ropes.

The novice commissioner is optimistic and perhaps naively ambitious. He says there should be one clear standard to measure his tenure. "The knock on me early on was that I was a downtown guy who would ignore the neighborhoods," he says. "If we get out of being the fourth poorest city in America to somewhere in the middle, then I will have succeeded."

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