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
Joane Tufano watched her daughter morph from a fast-talking reprobate to a political insider welcomed in the offices of congressmen Bill Nelson, Bob Graham, William Lehman, Sherman Winn, Gov. Lawton Chiles, and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, as well as countless local officials, such as Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and Commissioner Tomas Regalado. "Elaine Gordon was a very honest politician," Tufano remarks. "I thanked her once for what she did for Laurie. She told me, öI didn't do it, she did.'" "Up until three or four years ago, nobody did anything without calling Laurie," avows Annette Eisenberg, a longtime political fixture who runs the monthly Downtown Bay Forum. "Even now, many of them call. They wanted the money, the support, the endorsement."
Lobbyist Bob Levy says one of Laurie's charms is her talent for malapropism. He recalls that once Gordon was supposed to get an honorary doctorate from Barry University at the same moment she was to be honored by the North Miami Chamber. "She asks Laurie to accept for her and explain she can't be there because she's been inducted into the school," Levy relates. "Laurie gets up and says, öI'm here on behalf of Elaine Gordon, who can't be here because she's being indicted.'"
Levy was introduced to Laurie by Gordon, who asked him to help her break into the towing contracts at the county. For years, the majority of the contracts had been locked up by the appropriately named Johnny Dollar. Levy helped break the lock and Midtown Towing got a contract. "Bob is special," Laurie opines. "You know Johnny Dollar tried to give him $25,000 to walk away from me? He didn't take it."
Similarly, Laurie fought for years to get a contract in the city of Miami's good ol' boy system, a process made more difficult by her and Howie's past. To that end she supported the campaigns of both Carollo and Regalado, among others. Laurie is "a character," Regalado says. "She was not shy to say something about her past," he says. "She is very humble. She's always giving and giving."
She made fast friends with former commissioner Miller Dawkins, even speaking in support of him at his corruption trial. "When they got him, he called me and said, öYou're gonna hear something. I wanted you to hear from me first.' I went to court for him. He was always honest with me." Carollo proclaimed June 9, 1997, Howard Lichtman Memorial Day. Laurie gave a little speech that included her promise to help the city fight community activists seeking to abolish it altogether. "The City of Miami and the commissioners are not going nowhere," she vowed.
Becoming a widow In May 1997, Howie Lichtman's long illness finally consumed him. Laurie says he was in and out of the hospital and clearly weakening. One day she says they came home from the hospital and talked about things they'd never talked about before. Howie had a man come and cut his hair and nails. Laurie went to the grocery store. When she returned, he didn't answer her call. "I went running in the bedroom and I saw him there and thought he had a heart attack like he did a few weeks prior," she explains. "I called 911."
Then she saw the gun. "I guess being in the service, the way he did it, there was no blood. I called my mother. I was hysterical. I didn't know what to do." Laurie was shocked and hurt. She says she hadn't noticed signs that Howie had been suicidal. "I remember that night he told me to watch for the rainbow and the birds. öWhen you see a bird, think of me,' he said.
"I didn't know nothing," she maintains. "I didn't comprehend. I'm just mad at him (her voice chokes and she stops for a minute), 'cause he never said goodbye. He promised he would never, never do that. And he never lied to me. He never lied to me. And that's why I guess I haven't gotten rid of this house, because I hope to open a drawer someday and find a note, or find something."
The manner of Howie's death was kept quiet. His funeral, however, was a grand affair. Just about everybody who was anybody, and plenty of people who weren't, were there at the Levitt-Weinstein funeral parlor, a crowd estimated at about 1500. Howie was dressed in a Midtown shirt and part of his old Army uniform. There was a 21-gun salute. "My husband's funeral was the biggest ever," Laurie boasts. "Everybody came. All the things I did up in Tallahassee was for him. Every wish he had, I fulfilled before he died. And I can say I was faithful to him the whole time. My whole world was him. You ever hear of an unconditional love? That was it."
Gustown After Howie died, some of Laurie's motivation to traffic in politics faded. She withdrew bit by bit from that realm and concentrated more on the business end of Midtown, which had been Howie's forte. There is no quarter given in the towing industry. Some competitors worked to chisel off chunks of her business. Some employees, typically ex-cons with pasts similar to her own, stole money.