By Michael E. Miller
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He is referring to two small lots on NW Ninth Street that are the result of District Five commissioner Arthur Teele, Jr.'s labors as chairman of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). "They are landscaped. They're supposed to be maintained -- we'll see how well that works out -- but they look attractive," Winton observes as he drives by them, noting they are also devoid of cars. "All the surface lots in downtown Miami -- in downtown Miami of all damn places -- ought to look similar." A block later the chainlink fencing reappears around more empty tracts of asphalt near the old Miami Arena. "They should not look like all of this."
Soon after taking office in November 1999, Winton received a crash course on then-mayor Joe Carollo. "He was supposed to be my buddy," Winton says. But the freshman commissioner learned one of the most obvious lessons of Miami government: No elected official can work with Carollo. Why? "Because he's Joe Carollo! He's a guy that you can't work with. With Joe it was principally his way or no way. And if you got on cross-purposes with him at all he would call you names and it would be very nasty. I remember one time ... where he wanted something. He said, 'Okay, you're the reformer. You ran on a reformer platform. Well, reform! Now is the time to reform!' I don't remember what it was. I didn't see it as reforming ... and voted against it. He was so pissed and just rude to me. And I wanted to ..." He cuts himself off, perhaps sensing the irony of his impulse to throttle Crazy Joe. "I learned how to work with the commission and the mayor went to hell in a handbasket," he concludes.
How did the anti-politician manage to create a good rapport with his fellow commissioners? "The way I was able to develop that kind of thing was, one, learning to ask a lot of questions during commission meetings; two, making sure I treated everyone with the utmost respect; three, to only question commissioners ... in a way that was clearly only focused on the greater good of the community. I tried very hard to make sure that any issue that I spoke on, no matter what I did, I focused on helping to make the city better, not on helping to make me better or make my buddy better, not helping with your special deal."
Winton says his close ties to executives who belong to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce have not crept into his office, other than to support his pro-business strategy to sink a lot of government money into infrastructure and economic development projects in downtown, Overtown, and Wynwood. Real-estate investor Philip Blumberg and Radio Unica president José Cancela, two buddies who convinced him to run for office and raised thousands of dollars for his campaign, have asked for nothing and wouldn't get it if they tried, Winton insists.
"The business I'm in really helps," he says. "Because by and large I don't do business with people in Miami-Dade County. I'm in the real-estate investment business. We have tenants. But that's not a direct link. I'm not selling a contract that lasts for five months or six months or whatever. So it's a lot easier for me to say no to virtually anybody and everybody."
It's less easy for him to control what he says to certain somebodies. "I think the silent majority wants good government and is appreciative when they get it," he submits. "But there's something about the political arena that draws out really angry people that want to kind of hang around. If there's a public hearing, the silent majority don't come to that stuff. The really angry people come. And they think that because you're an elected official they can treat you like a dog! I don't deal very well with that."
By this past May the angry minority had him ready to quit. "I was so frustrated that I was just ready to chuck this whole thought of public office," Winton confesses. But when he attended the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's annual goals conference in Palm Beach a month and a half ago, his fellow captains of industry brought him back from the brink. "They're all very good friends and I told them how frustrated I was," Winton offers. "And they said, 'Look, you've got to do a better job of not letting those people get to you. Stay focused on your agenda and ignore that stuff.' And they're right. And I knew the answer. I've been there before."
"Before" refers to the job he had 30 years ago reorganizing poorly run community blood centers throughout the United States. At the time the nation was moving from a system based on paid blood donors to one relying on volunteer donors. "Every time I landed in a community, the community was angry at the not-for-profit blood center," he recalls. "Always in every town there was somebody with their own motive that wasn't the betterment of the community. It was their own selfish motive. And I learned a long time ago that the way you beat those special self-serving critics is to do a damn good job. You get the job done, critics go away."