By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Work kept getting in the way, though. About three years ago, after being assigned another tour of duty in Asia, and after discovering that his heart wasn't into heart surgery anymore, he quit his job and settled in Miami full-time. His brief, happy exposure to local politics, coupled with his knowledge of foreign governments, fed a daydream. Instead of looking for a new job, he decided to spend six months immersed in Miami's political landscape. Call it a citizenship sabbatical.
Initially Ricker was more of an activist than an observer. He demanded that the city's Charter Review Board make its meetings more accessible. He lobbied for the electoral defeat of long-time city Commissioner J.L. Plummer, whom he considered to be too arrogant for public life. ("He's entitled to his opinion, as wrong as he usually is," Plummer maintains.) Ricker became so involved in the campaign to oust Plummer that he briefly considered running for the seat himself. Eventually a candidate he could support, realtor Johnny Winton, entered the race and won.
After Winton's triumph Ricker looked around. He was enjoying himself more than he'd ever imagined. He liked mingling with politicians and activists and the news reporters who cover them. Although his goals remained vague, he decided to become even more involved. "When Winton got elected to office," Ricker recalls, "I had more time, which I chose to spend at the school board and the county. I soon realized I could do something even bigger than hold office myself. I could somehow try to make these people work together and know what the hell they're all doing."
So he began attending meetings. On a typical Thursday recently he attended a Miami City Commission meeting, a county commission meeting, a Domestic Violence Oversight Board meeting, a meeting of a little-known county finance committee, and a meeting of the Public Health Trust, the body that oversees the operation of Jackson Memorial Hospital. He might attend 60 meetings in a single week. Sixty percent of the time there aren't any reporters there, he says. Sometimes he's the only member of the public present.
"He sits through a lot of the meetings I don't know I would have the tolerance for," offers Miami Daily Business Review columnist Tony Doris. "These meetings are so damn boring half the time that it's amazing that anybody is willing to sit through any of them. I don't think I could."
Early on Ricker worked informally, without any real objective. He took notes at the meetings, but he didn't know what he was going to do with them. Occasionally he'd send tips or observations to reporters at the Herald and elsewhere. One e-mail earned a response that gave him the direction he was looking for.
"At that point I was regularly e-mailing a couple of reporters at the Miami Herald,"he recounts. "I was telling them what's going on, saying, “Hey, check this out. What do you think?' One time I wrote a memo about, oh, I don't know, the meltdown in the City of Miami, and [Herald reporter Joe] Tanfani came back saying to me: “You know, this is really a thorough and cogent analysis of the situation.' That blew me away. I looked at these Herald guys in awe, and here Tanfani was telling me I was doing great work. That's when I decided to send out the e-mails."
That's when Ricker was reborn as the Watchdog.
The Watchdog snuffs out a Marlboro, adjusts his trademark red bow tie, and swings open a side door to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. It's showtime. Walking with the pace of a man who draws energy just by being in the womb of county government, Ricker hustles past volunteers who are setting up a booth for a blood drive. "Hello," he says to one of them. "Hey there," he calls out to another. A man wearing what appears to be a fire department administrator's uniform comes into range. "Anything going on?" Ricker asks the man. "No? Okay." Two security guards manning a metal detector return Ricker's wave.
"These little people," he confides, "they see me around and they all raise their fists up and say, like, “Go, Dan, go!'"
Ricker is dressed like the businessman he once was. The linen suit. The hair slicked back. Sure, his white dress shirt is frayed around the collar. And he's wearing black sneakers instead of his Gucci loafers, which he allows are too beat-up for public presentation. Still, the overall look is sharp, which is how he likes it.
"I want people to be able to see that I'm taking this serious," he says, riding an elevator to the top of the county government monolith. The doors swing open on the 29th floor, home of the executive offices of Mayor Alex Penelas and County Manager Merrett Stierheim.
Ricker strides past a receptionist, turning down a narrow hall lined with cubicles. After about twenty feet, he opens an unmarked wooden door. Before him unfolds an interior boardroom occupied by about twenty people in dark business suits. There is a meeting of some sort going on, though few people outside this room are aware of it. Ricker picks up an agenda from a credenza near the door, grabs a metal folding chair, and joins the cast of support staff ringing the conference table.