Basking in the twilight of a lengthy public service career, Miami City Commissioner Joseph Lionel "J.L." Plummer chomps on an unlit cigar and explains his motivation for seeking an eighth consecutive four-year term.
He doesn't propose to return prosperity to Overtown. Nor does he come up with a strategy to dispel the city's money malaise. And forget about Miami's neglected parks.
Truth is, Plummer has nothing better to do.
"If I'm gonna be here, I'm gonna do the job I've done for the past 29 years," he says, momentarily abandoning his predilection for pithy one-liners.
Quizzed on which issue he would like to tackle first after the November 2 election, he answers: "Nothing particular. Just overall." Grammar is not a Plummer specialty.
Pressed a third time, he replies: "I would like to work with [City Manager Don] Warshaw."
There it is, the Plummer formula for election-day success: Show a minimum of leadership, play the fiscal conservative though your voting record belies that persona, and give nebulous answers to concrete questions. Don't forget to press the flesh with campaign donors and potential voters at every possible award ceremony, ribbon cutting, and charity event.
But this fall's campaign could be the toughest that Miami's most veteran pol has ever faced. Among the reasons: Many residents, along with his three opponents, are trying to pin the city's slide into fiscal chaos on the incumbent. More important, perhaps, is Plummer's newly carved-out district, which includes two neighborhoods (the Upper Eastside and Coconut Grove) that are home to many Plummer detractors. For the first time his staunchest supporters, the elderly Latin voters of la Pequeña Habana, won't be able to punch Plummer's name on their ballot. Add his first-ever, well-financed challenger, downtown developer Johnny Winton, and this commissioner, a mortician by trade, may be a cadaver awaiting election-day burial.
Plummer initially cooperated in the preparation of this story. Then, after supporters phoned his office to report that New Times was asking tough questions, he repeatedly ducked follow-up interviews. He responded tersely to a letter faxed to his office this past week.
The Plummer political family tree sprouted from the seed of Joseph W. Plummer, J.L.'s great-grandfather and the Republican mayor of Key West during the Civil War. Five generations of Plummers lived in the Conch Republic before Joseph Lionel Plummer, Sr., the commissioner's father, headed north in 1931 to the budding metropolis of Miamah. That same year Joseph married Jessie and started working at the Ahern Funeral Home. J.L. was born in 1936. His brother Larry arrived in 1941.
Miami of the Forties was a sleepy Southern town dominated by whites. Flagler Street was the commercial center and the Glades' edge was a few minutes from downtown. Plummer recalls strolling the main drag on Saturday afternoons, paying 15 cents to see movies, and spending a few more pennies on candy and lunch. The entire cost added up to less than a dollar.
Plummer was four years old when he entered first grade at Miami's St. Peter and Paul Catholic School. When his daddy was elected to the Dade County School Board in 1946, Plummer transferred to Riverside Elementary. This was his first lesson in political gamesmanship: It wouldn't sit well with voters for a school board member to send his child to a private academy. He later finished Ada Merritt Junior High and earned his diploma in 1953 from Miami Senior High at age sixteen.
Along the way Plummer developed a close bond with his father. "We were inseparable. We were together all day and every day," Plummer fondly recalls. "Fine gentleman. I am told that if you saw my dad, you saw me."
The commissioner's father worked his way up to partner in 1945 and in 1949 bought out Francis Ahern, but kept the business's name.
Plummer Jr. served a three-year apprenticeship under his father before attending the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in 1958, his only posthigh school education. At age 21 he became Florida's youngest licensed funeral director.
The newly certified undertaker also joined civic organizations such as Miami Elks Lodge 948 and lent a hand during Sunday mass at Gesu Catholic Church downtown. Community service was part of his introduction to the municipal-government elite. By meeting the power brokers informally at the lodge or after Sunday mass, he built the foundation for his eventual run for public office. In 1961 Plummer married. (He was divorced in 1981.)
His eldest daughter Dawn Marie was born in 1966, the same year he reaped his first political harvest: an appointment to the city zoning board. Back then, and to some extent today, city commissioners were groomed on advisory panels. Plummer did not disappoint his backer, Commissioner Irwin Christie; he rose to the chairmanship in 1967.
Plummer remained active in the family funeral home and helped manage a second location that opened in 1969 on Bird Road in the burgeoning West Dade suburbs. The family later sold the original Flagler Street location to Saint John Bosco Catholic Church.
When Maurice Ferre resigned from the Miami commission to run for mayor of Metro-Dade County in 1970, commissioners appointed Plummer as a replacement. At the time he called it the fulfillment of "a lifelong dream." Questioned by reporters about issues he planned to address, he emphasized "growth and an exploding population." He retained the seat in his first election in 1971 and has been rooted in the commission ever since.
Miamah was set to begin its metamorphosis into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Plummer the bumpkin had to adapt or be swept away.
As Plummer sifts through papers in a converted garage at his funeral home, he receives a call from 82-year-old Dorothy Gramling, Miami's first female police officer. She met the commissioner during the city's centennial celebration three years ago; he was dressed as Christopher Columbus, white tights and all. They share some reminiscences, then she explains that she wants to prepay her own funeral. Plummer schedules an appointment to discuss the details.
This is where politics meets commerce, and controversy can be bad for business.
Miami-Dade voters have a history of choosing funeral directors for public office. Larry, Plummer's younger brother and also an undertaker, was elected to the state senate eight times from a South Dade district before his retirement in 1992. Athalie Range, Miami's first black commissioner, and Coral Gables City Commissioner W.L. Philbrick brought mortuary science into the political arena during the Sixties. Each appealed to constituents, and that translated into attracting customers.
Plummer's draw was a noncontroversial style: championing issues, like lowering crime, that were popular with the voters; standing firmly behind city employees at contract time; and avoiding criticism of his fellow commissioners.
Plummer mixes business and politics, former Miami Mayor David Kennedy says. Then Kennedy pokes fun at the commissioner. "There's J.L. Plummer trying to look sad at a $20,000 funeral," he recalls. "Many funeral directors went into politics in those days to drum up business."
Plummer quickly established himself as a micromanager, a penny pincher, and a law-and-order commissioner. It was at this point he picked up the moniker Commissioner Kojak for his now-infamous nightly drives through the city with a police radio and car phone at his side.
In 1975 the commissioner helped arrest three men who had beaten and robbed an elderly man downtown. Plummer spotted the attack, radioed the cops, and used his Cadillac to pin one of the hoodlums. He handcuffed the miscreant to a pole until Miami cops arrived. The other two robbers were later nabbed by police. Plummer's mug was splashed across newspapers nationwide, which led to congratulatory calls from friends as far away as Iowa. In following years he made political alliances at the city's cop shop and fire department, but also earned the ire of some for meddling in their affairs.
In 1976 Plummer was the first to help controversial Cuban radio commentator Emilio Milian when his legs were blown off by a car bomb in front of a Miami radio station. The commissioner, who was across the street at his funeral home when the blast rocked the block, applied tourniquets, then comforted Milian until paramedics arrived. He was later credited with helping save the commentator's life. "That was my most memorable experience out on the street," Plummer says.
Suburban flight hobbled the city in the early Seventies. In 1974 property taxes on private homes made up two-thirds of the tax base, while businesses contributed one-third. Then-Mayor Maurice Ferre sought to reverse the trend by transforming Miami's low-rise, sleepy downtown into a bustling hub of international commerce. Among the fruits of this effort: Brickell Avenue's banking and condominium corridor, the Hyatt Regency Miami and adjacent James L. Knight Center, and the Southeast and CenTrust (now NationsBank) bank towers.
These days Ferre is not kind when it comes to his former commission colleague. Plummer was more interested in fixing potholes and hiring cops than reversing the city's fortunes, the former mayor asserts. "[Plummer is] not a visionary. He does not see things in a big scope. He's a microperson," Ferre says. "For the most part he was an ally, but occasionally he went against me." Like when former Dolphins owner Joe Robbie wanted a new stadium for his aqua-and-orange football team. Ferre saw the pro franchise as a jewel the city needed to guard. In Plummer's eyes Robbie was a rich owner attempting to exploit taxpayers.
"What Joe Robbie wants, Joe Robbie gets," Plummer was fond of saying at commission meetings. In 1982 the miserly commissioner helped defeat Ferre's plan to impose a penny- sales tax that would have generated $120 million to refurbish the Orange Bowl and help pay for a baseball stadium or arena. Voters killed the plan by a 4-1 margin. "It wasn't a 100 percent solution, but an 80 percent solution would have been enough to keep the Dolphins in Miami," Ferre contends. "[Plummer] wasn't an ally."
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo sits and simmers at a June commission meeting. He's trying to avert a vote that would increase the mayor's powers, but halve his term. Then the anger spills forth. Carollo rails against the plan, calling it a coup attempt. Moments later he erupts. His colleagues pushing the vote are corrupt, he says. He fingers Commissioner Tomas Regalado's wife, Cuban radio host Raquel, as a leader of the conspiracy. The audience in the packed chamber sits in stunned silence.
Regalado defends his wife's honor. Joining the verbal fracas is Commissioner Arthur Teele, who dubs the mayor "a sissy" for mixing spouses and politics. (Teele later apologized to the gay community for the comment.) The situation degrades into a macho-man challenge.
With a couple of bangs of his trusty gavel, Plummer can halt the spectacle by stopping the meeting. But the commission chairman does not, despite pleas for order from some audience members. He just sits there, sometimes folding his hands, sometimes shrugging his shoulders, sometimes looking at the ceiling.
Only when name-calling and finger-pointing take over does Plummer grab the gavel, pound away, and call a five-minute recess. "I was elected to do a job, not to fight," Plummer comments, a slight Southern lilt flavoring his speech.
During the Eighties such episodes were common on the Dinner Key dais. Political rivalries and anti-communist posturing transformed stale meetings into biweekly wars of words. As the commission slashed funding for the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture and snubbed Nelson Mandela because of anti-communist outrage, Plummer sided with his Cuban colleagues. Plummer also knew which side to take when over 100,000 refugees migrated from the island nation to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. He understood the new residents would soon transform Hispanics into the city's largest voting bloc. Plummer adapted and the strategy paid off in votes: He was elected time and again. "[Plummer] was focusing on one segment of the city at the expense of the others," says Ric Katz, a political strategist.
Take Plummer's last election in 1995, when Cuban Americans Manolo Reyes and Margarita Ruiz entered the fray. The incumbent took 41 percent of the votes cast in Little Havana's 21 precincts. Reyes placed second with 31 percent and Ruiz garnered 28 percent. Despite his ethnic handicap in a mostly Hispanic city, Plummer coasted to a citywide 56 percent victory. Indeed he has never been forced into a runoff, though he has drawn up to five challengers. Except for a few years when veteran pol Steve Clark was Miami's mayor, Plummer has survived as the lone gringo commissioner for more than a decade.
One reason: his long-time Cuban girlfriend Maria Cristina "Macu" Palacios, whom he started dating after he divorced. She is often at his side when he travels through the Hispanic community. "He has always had the Cuban vote, even against other Cubans," notes Tomas Regalado, a Cuban American. "Cubans tend to respect the idea of an Anglo seat on the commission and his support of the Cuban community has helped him retain it."
Plummer has also built a bridge into African-American neighborhoods, albeit one that he uses infrequently, black leaders say. When three race riots in the Eighties destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars in property throughout Miami's predominantly black areas, Commissioner Kojak hit the street to help calm a nervous city. "[Plummer] was out there in his car talking to the community," recalls Ferre.
Plummer drove through the black districts, but never did much else for them, comments Garth Reeves, publisher emeritus of the black-oriented newspaper the Miami Times. "He hasn't done a whole lot to help us, but he hasn't done a whole lot to hurt us," Reeves says. "No one would call him a fired-up liberal. He is sort of middle-of-the-road."
Plummer's penchant for one-liners backfired in 1992, when he labeled former Assistant Police Chief Arnold Gibbs, who is black, and another officer "monkeys." Plummer was angered by the chief's criticism of a plan to eliminate the department's media-relations unit. Some blacks, along with several police officers, protested the remark at the next commission meeting. Plummer apologized, explaining it slipped out.
Tension between Plummer and Miami's ethnic groups escalated in 1994, when an anonymous complaint was filed against the commissioner with the State Attorney's Office (SAO). It accused Plummer of interfering in a police matter involving one Hispanic and two black officers. Authorities had accused the trio of overbilling for after-hours security jobs. Only the Hispanic was suspended during the investigation, resulting in rumblings of unfair treatment. The anonymous complainant alleged Plummer met privately with then-City Manager Cesar Odio and threatened to publicize the issue if the black officers were not taken off the job. The cops were eventually suspended. Although it's illegal for commissioners to intercede in administrative matters, SAO investigators dropped the case when they could not substantiate the charge.
Plummer has lived in a $200,000, three-bedroom, three-bathroom house on Halissee Street in Coconut Grove for more than 30 years. Many neighbors complain he inadequately represents his own community. Among his sins: standing by while large shopping malls were built in the area's business district and office towers and condominiums were constructed along Bayshore Drive. The residents claim he ignored the transformation of SW 27th Avenue from a street lined by homes into a commercial corridor. "He is not an environmentalist," notes attorney Tucker Gibbs, who is active in Grove affairs. "He is a builder's friend."
To help develop the Grove's waterfront, Plummer convinced the commission in 1985 to steer ten million dollars proposed for Miami Arena construction to improve the Coconut Grove Convention Center and city-owned property on Dinner Key. In the process the arena lost more than 3000 seats and eight luxury boxes. The lack of those amenities was a major reason the Miami Heat decided to abandon the eleven-year-old structure. (Next year the team will move into the nearby American Airlines Arena, which is partially taxpayer-financed.)
Ferre blames Plummer and ex-Mayor Xavier Suarez for making Miami Arena so quickly obsolete. "Suarez and Plummer were responsible for the reduction of the building," Ferre contends. "It was stillborn."
Plummer's zest for police action has occasionally endangered Grovites. In 1993 Commissioner Kojak re-emerged to chase some burglars through Coconut Grove. Miami police officers joined his car pursuit that ended when the thieves ran a stop sign and crashed into an oncoming vehicle. Earlier that year the commissioner urged his colleagues to approve a policy limiting officers to chasing only violent offenders. Miguel Narganes, president of the Miami Police Hispanic Officers Association, said Plummer's actions showed a "double standard."
Plummer explained he was only doing his duty as a good citizen. Most good citizens, however, don't own police radios.
The commissioner has also been a law-enforcement target. In the Eighties and Nineties federal law-enforcement agencies subpoenaed his records, hauled him before a grand jury, and sent wired, undercover informants to chat about dirty deals. In the end Plummer survived all the investigations. John Brennan, a Grove activist, calls the undertaker's greatest accomplishment "the fact that he has not been jailed." Then he adds: "He's clever enough to not get caught with anything."
To maintain his clout, Plummer forged a strong alliance with former City Manager Cesar Odio, who ran Miami from 1986 until his departure following a federal indictment on corruption charges in 1996.
The penurious Plummer was a chief advocate for Odio's pay increases and rich compensation packages. In 1992 commissioners agreed that, upon the manager's departure from Dinner Key, he would receive close to $90,000 in accrued sick leave and an annual pension of more than $75,000 per year.
One result of Plummer's rare munificence: The manager protected the commissioner's pet projects. In 1988, for example, ex-Mayor Xavier Suarez sought bids to redevelop Watson Island and renegotiate the sweetheart lease held by Dade Helicopter Jet Services. Owners William and Joan Ter Keurst did not pay the city a penny in rent. Rather they offered elected officials, city employees, police, and visiting dignitaries ten hours of free helicopter time each month.
But Odio and his staff never acted on Suarez's request for bids. During a city commission meeting, the then-mayor inquired why his proposal had been ignored. Bureaucrats did not answer the mayor's questions, recalls an ex-city official. A frustrated Suarez eventually turned to Plummer, who did nothing, says the ex-city official. The ex-official cites an interesting coincidence: Plummer's 1983 re-election campaign took in more than $11,000 in donations and gifts from people listing Ter Keurst's Watson Island business as their mailing address. "Deep down inside Plummer wants to be frugal for the taxpayers," the ex-official says. "But he doesn't mind spending money on his friends."
When Miami celebrated its centennial in 1996, Plummer had presided over the city for more than a quarter of its existence. His connection with Odio caused some to see Plummer as Miami's true mayor in the early Nineties. "Odio ran this city like a South American dictator and he visited with Plummer almost every morning," says Brennan, a member of the city's Waterfront Advisory Board. "I never heard Plummer chastise him."
In January 1991 Plummer made an unexpected proposal amid rumors the commission might dump the city manager: Pay Odio a severance package of $212,500 if he were fired. Plummer withdrew the proposal when Commissioners Miller Dawkins and Victor De Yurre and Mayor Suarez opposed it.
Then in 1992 Plummer supported a move to boost the manager's yearly pension from $41,706 to $54,950 in lieu of a raise. Eventually the commissioner pushed the pension figure to more than $75,000 annually. "Fact is [Plummer] was Odio's patron and Odio didn't do anything without checking with [Plummer]," says Tucker Gibbs, a member of the city's charter review committee. In his faxed response, Plummer wrote briefly of his relationship with the former manager: "I no longer speak with Cesar Odio."
Plummer boasts about the time he spends poring over city documents so he can criticize pork-barrel spending. But critics charge that in many instances he has supported the pork.
During the city's fiscal crisis in February 1998, Commissioner Tomas Regalado proposed to more than triple commissioners' salaries from $5000 to $18,000 annually. He also wanted to add a life insurance policy, $25,000 to hire private attorneys if the need arose, and $3000 for office equipment in commissioners' homes. Plummer seconded the motion, which passed unanimously. The commission later withdrew the decision when public outrage arose. Asked why he supported it, Plummer replied the episode was "confusing."
For the past five years, Plummer has presided over the Bayfront Park Trust, which oversees a facility that loses an average of $100,000 per year; the park's total debt is more than $700,000. During the time Plummer has served as trust chairman, the park has sporadically operated an expensive laser tower and an electricity-guzzling fountain. The trust also blew $250,000 on a Super Bowl party in January 1999. City taxpayers have been forced to make up most of the losses. The park's deficit has caught the eye of the state oversight board, which is now limiting the city to a $100,000 annual contribution toward park operations.
Bayfront's executive director Ira Katz defends Plummer. He notes the commissioner inherited many of the park's troubles from the previous administration. Katz hopes to sign a new corporate sponsor (there's a candidate that he won't name) and cut costs so that the park eliminates 80 percent of the debt. The laser tower now runs every weekend and the fountain is turned on fourteen hours per day. "He is always on me about increasing revenues and cutting expenses," Katz says. "He is probably one of the hardest guys to work for. But he is one of the fairest people you will ever meet." Indeed in his faxed letter, Plummer claimed that sales have increased substantially, meaning the debt will be eradicated this fiscal year.
As commission chairman J.L Plummer runs meetings like a circus ringmaster. With a witticism for nearly every situation, the commissioner seems to be hamming it up for the cable television cameras. When Arthur Teele recently asked to hear an architect's opinion on a zoning issue, Plummer reminded his fellow commissioner the man could not speak unless he registered as a lobbyist. "Mr. Teele, no tickee, no laundry," Plummer said acerbically.
Later in the day Plummer called for a break that would last no more than five minutes. "A real five-minute recess. Not mas o menos, a real five-minute recess," the chairman quipped. "I gotta go do something no one else can do for me."
When perennial commission gadflies Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga and Mariano Cruz request to speak on an issue, Plummer makes his discontent clear. "I vote to put you on a boat and send you out to sea," he says.
Unlike most of his fellow commissioners, who wear snazzy suits with silk ties and dine at the city's finest eateries, Plummer prefers a man-of-the people style. His wardrobe of polyester shirts and clip-on ties with a black digital watch has remained unchanged for years. The only signs of luxury are his purple Cadillac and the unlit cigar he keeps in his mouth. (He dropped a forty-year smoking habit six years ago.) He eats dinner every evening at the homey Maria's Greek Restaurant on Coral Way.
But his income tax returns indicate he can afford much more. In 1998 Plummer reported earnings of $116,285, $29,285 of which came from the City of Miami in salary and benefits. The remainder came from the funeral home. He also received another $21,000 in interest from bank accounts and dividends from investments. Regardless of the large cash flow, Plummer claimed enough deductions to receive a $13,665 refund from the Internal Revenue Service.
Despite his salt-of-the-earth persona, Plummer has no qualms accepting large contributions from special-interest groups. According to a campaign finance report filed this past July, he has accepted $131,995 in donations, nearly double the $70,335 garnered by challenger Johnny Winton. Nearly one-third of Plummer's money comes from developers and companies with interest in real estate development. It's no surprise that Winton, who rehabilitates old office buildings, received half his campaign money from construction companies and similar interests.
Some political observers predict Plummer may not be around to oversee another wave of construction. Winton argues the incumbent does not deserve to be re-elected because he did nothing to stem Miami's financial meltdown, repair urban decay, or improve its abysmal services. Since Plummer was not part of the solution, he must be part of the problem, Winton surmises. "Why didn't he ask questions about what was going on? Is he just tired?" asks political strategist Ric Katz. "An alert and aware commissioner would have seen things and taken action. He is going to suffer guilt by association."
And Winton has raised plenty of money to get his message out to the 42,000 registered voters in the district. By November his campaign should garner more than $100,000 for the election.
Plummer has three decades of politics on his side. When the new single-member districts were carved out in 1997, he got a fairly secure niche. In 1995 Plummer took two of every three votes cast in the 34 precincts that form the district along Miami's Upper Eastside, according to county voting records. Yet there are problems: The longest-serving commissioner will be the first to test the new single-member districts; disenchanted voters might flock to the polls for the first time, bad news for Plummer. "There will be a lot of people looking for new blood," opines Glenn Terry, a Coconut Grove activist. "Give somebody new a chance. The old city commission does not have an impressive record."
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