Commissioner Kojak

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.

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Jose Luis Jiménez

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