Portrait of an Upset
It's 7:30 p.m. and Johnny Winton just wants a nap. After a thirteen-hour mad dash from precinct to precinct on election day, his thirteen-year-old daughter Julie greets the Miami City Commission candidate at the door with a hug. His wife, Vickie, carrying the couple's toddler, Addison Hunter, follows with a kiss. The candidate locks himself in the bedroom of his large Bay Heights home. Forty-five minutes later Winton throws open the door and emerges wearing a gray suit with a white dress shirt and red tie. "What? I'm not winning?" he quips while grabbing a cold bottle of Budweiser from a small refrigerator built into a bar. The candidate takes a sip while walking toward the kitchen for a bite to eat.
"Hurry up, Dad. They are going to show your results!" his fifteen-year-old-son Matt yells from the television room. Winton sprints into the spacious area containing an L-shaped couch, a 25-inch television in the corner, and sliding glass doors that lead to a 35-foot swimming pool. He still has the beer in hand when the Miami-Dade County Elections Department flashes the tally for the District 2 race on the screen: Winton is at 48 percent. Incumbent J.L. Plummer is in the thirties. The challenger leaps, screams "Woo!" and begins hugging people. "Only two more points to go over the top," he bellows. Then he covers his saucerlike blue eyes with his hands. "I don't want to look. This is hard," he complains then kisses his wife on the lips. Five minutes later a new tally is shown. "Fifty-two! Fifty-two!" Winton announces as he thrusts his arms in the air.
But what goes up must come down. Winton senses this. "Now they'll get a bad precinct and it'll drop to 40 percent," he muses. He takes another swig of the Bud. "I'm getting goose bumps again. I'm a nervous wreck," he exclaims while pacing in circles on the terrazzo floor. Sitting around him are his wife's parents, her brothers and sisters, and several others. By 8:45 p.m. Winton plummets to 45 percent and Plummer rises to 40 percent; if no candidate gets 50 percent, there will be a runoff. "Shit," he mutters after seeing the new results. "I'm tired of watching this." He hangs his head and walks into the kitchen.
The pressure weighs on the candidate. He drums his fingers on the dark gray Formica counter. Then he grabs a stack of paper plates with a fruit design and taps it on the rectangular breakfast table. Next he sits in a chair and taps his feet on the floor. "Plummer is up again!" someone reports from the television room. Winton slumps in his seat. Then he shares what's bugging him: "It's still amazing to me that many people vote for that sorry son of a bitch."
Two men walk into the room. Matt Hesslin, a short, stocky businessman from California dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, and Dave Graef, a silver-haired man with a thin, tan, weathered face, try to console their friend. "It was much funner at 52 percent," says the office seeker. "This is not fun."
Then another update: "49 percent to 38 percent. Winton!" someone yells. The candidate recovers his enthusiasm and darts back to the television room. By 9:00 he has inched just over 50 percent with only two precincts left to report. He grabs another beer and hugs Vickie. "I don't have any thoughts," he responds when asked how he feels. "I'm blank. It's pure nerves."
The screen remains stuck on the same results for about fifteen minutes. More than 100 anxious well-wishers await a victory party at Scotty's Landing, a wooden shack of a bar on Biscayne Bay that is a stone's throw from city hall. Winton says he won't join them until the results are final. "What the hell is the deal?" he complains. "What the hell are they doing? This is torture!" Several telephone calls convince him to leave for the fete. At 9:30 Winton packs the family into a Ford Windstar minivan for the short drive south, then instructs Vickie's parents, Jim and Mary Bartlett, to watch the television and call his cell phone with final results. As Winton straps tiny Addison into a car seat, someone screams from inside the house: "100 percent reported! Winton at 53 percent!" Vickie sprints through the front door repeating the results. Winton doesn't hear her. Then she hurries to his side and repeats the good news. "No! No! Oh my God!" the newly anointed commissioner exclaims. "We gotta go see the people! I wanna know the final numbers! Yeah! Yeah! Oh my God!"
As Hesslin pilots the minivan south on Bayshore Drive toward Scotty's, the newly crowned commissioner's two older children start singing Queen's rock/sports anthem, "We Are the Champions." The moment overwhelms the commissioner-elect. He puts his head down, covers his face, and sobs. The reality of unseating a 29-year incumbent hits him. Hesslin parks at city hall. Winton's son Matt notes, "Dad, I can see your office from here." Surrounded by his family, the commissioner walks toward a happy mob chanting "Johnny! Johnny!" Before Winton enters the restaurant, supporters and television crews with cameras shining bright lights gather around him. "You all did it!" he shouts as tears stream down his red cheeks.
The faces in the crowd are as diverse as the district he represents: Coconut Grove attorney Tucker Gibbs; gay political consultant Ric Katz, who lives in Morningside; Haitian businessman Georges William of Shorecrest; and Wynwood activist Bill Rios. Standing in the shadows just outside the spotlight are lobbyists who feed off government: Chris Korge, Bill Perry, and Dewey Knight. "Anything you need from me, you can count on me," Korge says before leaving the festivities.
About an hour later, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo drops in. The mayor had campaigned against the three incumbent commissioners who were up for re-election: J.L. Plummer, Willy Gort, and Tomas Regalado. Gort and Regalado won, so the mayor is here to lock up Winton's allegiance by offering him the commission chairmanship. "My gift to you is a copy of Robert's Rules of Order," the mayor says cryptically. Winton is clueless. Carollo repeats himself. Winton still doesn't get it. His campaign manager, Alberto Lorenzo, deciphers the message. "No! No! No! I'm not qualified," Winton responds. Carollo says he should at least think about it.
Around midnight the few supporters who remain at Scotty's stagger out while employees drop the umbrellas and close the shutters. As Winton makes his way through the parking lot, it dawns on him that his parents don't know of his victory. He grabs his cell phone and dials the number of his folks' New Mexico ranch. "Is this Donna Winton?" he asks while walking toward city hall. "This is Commissioner Winton."
By uprooting Plummer from the Miami commission, the political neophyte had succeeded where more than a dozen others had failed. Winton, a self-made millionaire, presented himself as a populist to unseat the city's elder statesman. The district he conquered begins at the northern city limits in Shorecrest and runs south along Biscayne Bay to where Miami meets Coral Gables. It includes 28,980 registered voters, many of them in Miami's most affluent neighborhoods. A majority, 45 percent, are white. Hispanics make up 33 percent and blacks comprise 19 percent of the electorate. About three percent are from other ethnicities. Thus Winton's post is termed the Anglo seat.
Early in the campaign, the ultracompetitive Winton retained professional help. For about $4000 per month each, he hired political consultant Keith Donner, who created a master plan, and Lorenzo, who executed it. The experts knew things would be different in this election than in the past. Until 1996 commissioners were elected by citywide vote. Then, following the lead of the Miami-Dade Commission and the county school board, the city leaders sliced up their community into districts in 1997. Plummer was assigned the new District 2, which did not include the heart of his traditional support: Little Havana's elderly Cuban voters. Yet Donner and Lorenzo knew they still had something to worry about. There were substantial numbers of Hispanics in the Douglas Park and Silver Bluff neighborhoods. Indeed although most of District 2's registered voters were Anglo, Hispanics had cast the majority of ballots in recent elections.
To win, Donner and Lorenzo knew they would have to play politics the Miami way. They secured a mole in the Plummer camp, tailored their message to the various ethnic groups (including dubious allegations on Spanish radio), and raised intimidating amounts of money from the mostly Anglo downtown establishment. The campaign also tapped into strong anti-government sentiment. The 1996 indictments of then-City Manager Cesar Odio and Miller Dawkins, and the ensuing financial crisis had soured many voters on officeholders like Plummer. Their campaign would take advantage of a new political force, occasioned by the county commission's 1998 passage of a human-rights amendment. The experts aimed to claim the gay vote for their man.
From the start Winton, Donner, and Lorenzo realized the core of their strategy would be to bring out the Anglos. Thus Winton attended neighborhood association meetings from Morningside to Coconut Grove and stressed his platform: Improve city services and clean up the neighborhoods. Nothing earthshattering, but it played well with residents, who were fed up with overdevelopment in the Grove and bad decisions up and down the bayfront. Winton also subtly emphasized the Anglos' new power in the district-voting system.
Targeting Anglos who felt disenfranchised would not be enough, they knew. Winton needed to erode a significant portion of Plummer's support in the Cuban community. With Lorenzo's help he acquired a list of names and addresses of voters most likely to punch a ballot on November 2. He knocked on doors and listened to the people's problems through a translator. He followed up with Spanish-language advertising that criticized Plummer by, what else, linking him to Fidel Castro. One radio ad even suggested that Plummer, who does not speak Spanish, was responsible for $2000 in calls from city hall to Cuba between December 1996 and March 1999. Winton made the allegation despite the fact that an investigation by City Manager Donald Warshaw failed to identify the responsible party.
Winton courted the gay vote by attending a fundraising dinner for the Dade Human Rights Foundation, which successfully lobbied for the human-rights ordinance. Costumed as George Washington, "an honest politician," he attended a predominantly gay Halloween party in Morningside. The SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) Dade political action committee rewarded the challenger with an endorsement, donations, volunteers, and phone calls urging their members to vote. The strategy, perhaps a first in Miami politics, represented Winton's will to win and his liberal, Democratic Party beliefs.
Money would not be a problem for Winton, a member of the downtown elite. From the beginning of his effort, fellow business owners and colleagues in the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce courted him. When the candidate asked for money, they gave and gave some more. Key contributors include Jose Cancela, chamber chairman and owner of several radio stations, among them the Radio Unica network, and Philip Blumberg, owner of the 1401 Brickell office building, who will take over as chamber chairman in the summer. Cancela, Blumberg, and others sponsored fundraisers and described Winton as a pro-business candidate.
By August, three months before the election, Winton had amassed a respectable $75,000 campaign fund. He more than doubled that to $152,000 by election time. The total surpassed what commission incumbents Tomas Regalado and Wilfredo Gort raised individually. Plummer, however, one-upped Winton, collecting $225,000 by the time voters had cast their ballots.
Election results show Winton's strategy generally succeeded. In the six precincts where Anglos make up at least two-thirds of voters, Winton took 70 percent of ballots cast. Plummer received only 22 percent. In the Hispanic community the commission veteran gained 41 percent and Winton received 28 percent. Overall Winton beat Plummer by 53 percent to 34 percent.
New Times shadowed Winton during the final two weeks of his campaign. What emerged was a portrait of an energetic, plain-speaking, quick-tempered businessman who can blend into nearly any social situation but is most comfortable among affluent and powerful businessmen, the group that heavily financed his campaign and will most likely expect the freshman commissioner to support its cause. He is also politically naive and sometimes oblivious to the unique customs and beliefs of the communities in Miami's Latin-American melting pot. A college dropout, Winton thinks quickly on his feet, but sometimes speaks in ungrammatical and tortured sentences. As a commissioner he will most likely be a savvy negotiator, adept at brokering coalitions and executing plans. But the outsider status that made him attractive to voters could hinder his effectiveness on the Dinner Key dais.
Johnny Winton was born October 13, 1949, to Donna and Sylvester "Curly" Winton in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His younger brother Bobby, who is now a diesel mechanic in the Land of Enchantment, arrived two years later. Winton grew up in a working-class home. His mother was a housewife, and his dad was employed at a lumberyard. Winton's formative years were uneventful. He was a B student in high school, worked with friends on their first cars (his was a 1955 Ford), and occasionally helped his dad at the lumberyard. Winton graduated from Valley High School in 1967, then enrolled at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. He majored in business administration and earned spending money disposing of scrap metal at a junkyard.
In February 1971 Winton's number was called for the Vietnam War draft. After a routine physical and basic training at a California army base, it seemed he would be sent overseas. But doctors discovered the recruit suffered from high-blood pressure. They kept him in a military hospital for three days to ensure he hadn't taken drugs to avoid the increasingly unpopular war, then sent him home. He still takes medication for the condition.
Back in Albuquerque Winton took a job as an apprentice to a plumbing contractor. He planned to return to college in January 1972, but an argument with a close comrade at a party in October 1971 drastically altered Winton's strategy. He doesn't recall the subject, only that he became frustrated with his station in life. Determined to start something new, he jumped in his truck at 2:00 a.m. and headed west.
The next day he stopped in Phoenix at the doorstep of a distant cousin. He had no clothes or income. A month later he took a job as a delivery boy for a nonprofit blood bank. The pay was $500 per month. Winton quickly rose through the ranks and became a manager. In 1972, as part of an attempt to make a bloated operation more efficient, the federal government placed the nation's blood supply under the control of the American Red Cross. Soon Winton was helping restructure blood banks throughout the country.
Winton's experience with marriage has been rather, well, unconventional. He's wed three women but celebrated four weddings. In 1973 he met his first wife, Doreen, and the two were soon hitched. Then Winton was transferred to a Bismarck, North Dakota, blood bank. Doreen didn't much like the northern plain and left her new husband soon after arrival. The couple quickly divorced and then remarried. In 1977 he moved to Boston. Winton and Doreen split for good in 1979.
The following year Winton moved again, to Miami, to manage the South Florida Blood Service. He married his second wife, Colleen, in 1983. She bore Matt and Julie, Winton's two older children. After almost four years in the subtropics, Winton decided to change jobs. The link between AIDS and the nation's blood system surfaced at this time. Many hemophiliacs contracted the disease from blood transfusions. The press and public were scrutinizing the Red Cross. "It lost its apple-pie-and-motherhood appeal," Winton reflects.
The career nonprofit employee entered the lucrative world of real estate as a broker for John Steinbauer and Associates in the summer of 1983. By January of the following year, he opened his first solo venture, Winton/Butler Inc., with the financial backing of insurance agent Raymond Butler. The company brokered real estate deals and leased out space in office buildings. "I worried about going out of business every day for ten years," Winton recalls. "That was stress." While he struggled, Colleen filed for divorce in 1988 and moved to Washington, D.C., with the children
In 1990 Winton changed the company name to Wynco Realty. Four years later he went from middleman to main man, when he bought the Palmetto Office Park on Coral Way, near the Palmetto Expressway. The five buildings include 66,000 square feet of office space. Three months after the purchase, Wynco acquired Americas Center in downtown Miami, a ten-million-dollar building that Winton had been managing for several years. These days the fourteen-story office/retail building on SE Second Avenue also houses Wynco headquarters.
Just as his business took off, Winton began anew in his personal life by marrying again. In January 1994 he wed then-38-year-old paralegal Vickie Bartlett. In June 1998 the couple purchased a three-bedroom, three-bathroom $275,000 home in the exclusive Bay Heights neighborhood of Miami. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Addison was born two months later. The businessman coos like an infant when he holds the toddler. "How's my boogs?" Winton says, using a nickname his wife coined. "This is the best thing that could have happened to me."
It's a Tuesday night in December 1998 at Norman's restaurant in Coral Gables. Dark wood adorns the walls and Mexican tile covers the floor. Blumberg, Cancela, and Winton sit at a table tucked away in a corner. The two chamber-of-commerce heavyweights are making a final push to sell Winton on the idea of seeking office. They note his frustrations as a member of the city's Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the private Downtown Ad-Hoc PropertyOwners Committee. The groups have often urged commissioners to invest in the central city, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile fire protection and parking fees have skyrocketed.
Cancela tells the pair he has decided not to run; his expanding Spanish-language radio empire simply is taking up too much time. Blumberg plays on Winton's sense of duty. "Somebody needs to be courageous enough to do it," Blumberg tells Winton. "If you aren't going to, who will?" Winton's response: "Damn it! I'll do it."
Blumberg soon agrees to contribute $5500 to the campaign. Though the state limits contributions to $500 per individual, Blumberg gives through a series of companies that he owns, like Blumberg Brickell, Inc., and Blumberg/Alhambra Partners. And the developer steers others to Winton. Another $5250 in donations come from companies based at Flagler Station, 48 East Flagler St. The building's owner, Natan Rok, has plans for several major downtown developments. Moreover during the entire campaign, nearly half of Winton's contributions came from real estate and development-related companies with Miami addresses.
Despite Winton's prodigious fundraising ability, he ran out of money two months before the election, in September, and was forced to invest $10,000 of his own money into the campaign. "I developed a plan based on commitments and when [some people didn't] follow through, then it screwed up the plan," Winton says. "It has been my biggest source of disappointment and frustration."
Desperate to raise the $50,000 that Lorenzo said he needed to run credibly against Plummer's war chest of nearly a quarter-million dollars, Winton allowed lobbyist Chris Korge to enter the campaign. The renowned rainmaker is linked to many politicians, including Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Throughout the campaign he frequently offered advice and sources of cash to Winton. Although early in the effort the hopeful had declined such help, on October 14 he strolled into Korge's downtown law practice and spent eight hours calling potential donors from a list produced by the lobbyist. The net take was $3500.
Korge says he expects nothing in return. The lobbyist claims he has a personal vendetta against Plummer, who helped remove him from a job as attorney for the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority (MSEA). Korge even claims he does not conduct business in the city.
Despite the significant assistance extended by Korge and the others, Winton insists he is not for sale. "I have 100 percent control over me. I never want to be accused in the newspaper of being under the influence of someone else," he says. "Government should be an open process."
It's five days before the election, and Lorenzo is slowly pacing around Wynco headquarters like a general inspecting the troops. The campaign manager enters an office occupied by Charles Intriago, a silver-haired, red-faced former federal prosecutor, who sits behind a wooden desk. A black phone is glued to Intriago's ear. The volunteer gives the bulky campaign manager a thumbs up, then dials the number of 69-year-old Daisy Penalaza of Coconut Grove.
In Spanish that he acquired in his native Ecuador, "Carlos Intriago," a concerned neighbor, introduces himself and makes his best Winton pitch. He describes some of the latest scandals, says it's time for change, and then asserts the challenger can do it. Penalaza responds with an earful about politicians' broken promises. "Take it from an old resident of Miami. I'm tired of what is happening in the city. It's time for a change," says Intriago, who lives in the North Grove. After five minutes Penalaza pledges her support for Winton. "No one's hung up on me yet," Intriago comments. "This is looking all right."
Lorenzo, dressed in an olive-green suit, cracks a crooked smile and leaves to check on the seven other volunteers dialing for voters.
Welcome to Al Lorenzo's phone bank operation, where stacks of data combine with old-fashioned persuasion to produce Winton supporters. Every night at 6:00 for the last two weeks of the campaign, volunteers took over Winton's office. Sometimes they were college students brought by young volunteer T.J. Wright; other times they were Wynwood residents of all ages. They targeted District 2 voters who cast ballots in at least three of the past five elections, according to information (which originated with the Miami-Dade County Elections Department) processed by data specialist Hugh Cochran. Some callers used a script. Others, like Intriago, developed their own spiel.
Plummer supporters were quickly, and politely dispatched with. Winton backers were reminded to talk to their friends about the candidate. Names of the undecided and obdurate were recorded on a list for follow-up phone calls and propaganda. Lorenzo figured the telephone system would garner 500 to 2000 ballots for his candidate. "This is the best system to identify your support and target the undecided," says Lorenzo.
Phone banking, combined with an ability to mobilize voters on election day, have distinguished Lorenzo in recent Miami-Dade elections. He has worked on dozens of campaigns since 1993. In 1997 he ran a phone banking operation and transported voters for Carollo's campaign against Xavier Suarez in the bitter mayoral race. The following year Lorenzo managed former elementary schoolteacher Marta Perez's challenge of incumbent Renier Diaz de la Portilla for the Miami-Dade County School Board District 8 seat. After Perez walked the west Miami-Dade neighborhoods in the district, she pulled an upset: 52 to 48 percent. The same year Lorenzo employed the unusual tactic of hiring eight drivers to transport 750 of Gus Barreiro's supporters to the polls in his run for the State House. The rookie Republican from Miami Beach won by 428 votes.
Lorenzo has a Marlon Brando quality about him; his stocky, macho build seems out-of-sync with his soft, raspy voice. He needs a secretary. His daily planner is notes jotted down on scraps of paper. His office consists only of a tiny Nokia cell phone and the beige leather back seat of his GMC sport utility vehicle. For the Winton effort he stored campaign literature on the floor of a small office at Wynco headquarters. Behind the disorganized façade, though, is an intensely competitive man. His mind races from detail to detail. As he prepares a mailer highlighting the differences between Winton and Plummer, he plots Cuban radio ads and prepares a response in case of a last-minute attack by the incumbent.
Lorenzo's journey to the United States followed a route taken by many Cuban exiles. He was born in Managua, a small town near Havana. His father, Ruperto, fled the communist island in 1962 on a Spanish freighter and sought asylum in Colombia. About a month later the elder Lorenzo arrived in Miami and started working at an aluminum factory in Hialeah. In the summer of 1963, Alberto and his mother, Maria Luisa, came to Miami via Mexico City. The Lorenzos settled in what is now called Little Haiti. When Alberto reached tenth grade, the family moved to Hialeah. At Hialeah High, Alberto excelled in baseball on a team that included Bucky Dent, who went on to play for the New York Yankees. Lorenzo was an outfielder when the school won the state title in 1969. A hamstring injury during his senior year kept him from winning a college scholarship and trying out for the major leagues.
After graduation in 1970, at his parents urging, Al Lorenzo entered Miami-Dade Community College. Two years later he joined Florida International University's first junior class. In 1974 he received a bachelor's degree in business administration, entered a Southeast Bank management training program, and married his high school sweetheart, Magda. Their daughter, Michelle Marye, was born the following year. But the young couple grew apart and divorced in 1981.
Lorenzo bounced around several Miami financial institutions, including two short stints in 1984 and 1987 as vice president of Global Bank. There he met Hialeah power broker Herman Echevarria, who was part-owner of the failed savings and loan. In 1987 he met and married his second and current wife, Maggie. Four years later he began a career as a business consultant. His son, Alberto Jr., was born in 1992.
In 1993 Lorenzo received his introduction to big-city politics when an investment banker named Wilfredo Gort asked Lorenzo to help him run for the Miami City Commission. Lorenzo's business was failing, so he had ample time to volunteer. Former Miami Mayor and now political consultant David Kennedy, who ran the campaign, saw Lorenzo every day at the headquarters and was impressed. "I took a liking to him, and I needed a Hispanic partner," Kennedy recalls. "I found a guy who was bright and taught him what I knew."
Lorenzo displays his ability to stretch a metaphor while explaining his relationship with the former mayor. "Kennedy was the architect of the campaign, and I acted as the construction manager who built the building."
From the start of his work with Winton, Lorenzo says he understood the candidate had charm. His blue eyes and easygoing demeanor would be compelling if he met voters face to face. At the campaign manager's urging, Winton headed out on June 1. After leaving his home, he hung a left and knocked on the door of a potential voter three houses down. The neighbor turned out to be a staunch Plummer supporter. The negative response almost crushed Winton's will to walk. But he persevered and eventually found friendlier doors. "[Lorenzo] told me that in the end [meeting voters] would be the greatest reward," Winton says. "And you know what? He was right."
Lorenzo's advice was perhaps even more pivotal for Winton's run in the Cuban community. "Cubans have different issues," Lorenzo comments. "They think with their hearts." Thus radio, television and print advertisements in the exile community focused on the city's high tax rate and Winton's family-man image. The strategy did not disappoint at the Carroll Manor nursing home at Mercy Hospital, where most of 400 elderly votes were undecided when both candidates visited. Plummer arrived on October 16 with arroz con pollo. So Lorenzo told Winton to bring along his wife, toddler, and a cake on their October 20 visit. "These elderly people have been used and abused by politicians," the manager told the candidate. "You are there to tell them 'I am one of you.'"
The baby stole the hearts of the lonely, mostly female audience. "Hey, I vote for your son," resident Elena Painceira told Winton in Spanish. The sentiment was common among the home's residents, said employee Rafaela Perez. It didn't hurt that Addison took a liking to the old folks. "That baby charmed everyone," Perez says.
Winton parked his black Jeep Grand Cherokee on the corner of SW 28th Street and 38th Avenue. He grabbed a stack of flyers written in Spanish, a clipboard stuffed with lists of voters' names, and clipped his cell phone to his belt. The season's first cold front blew through early on Saturday, October 23 and sucked away summer's humidity. It left behind clear blue skies and comfortable temperatures, perfect weather to trawl for voters. Dressed in a white golf shirt with Miami emblazoned in rainbow colors on the left side of his chest, blue cotton slacks, and black Nike sneakers, the candidate strolled south.
Most homeowners were older Cuban exiles who speak little English. Schoolteacher and area resident Arles Carballo acted as translator. The pair approached Carlos Arribas, an elderly balding man wearing a white T-shirt and dark slacks who was working in his front yard. Winton made his pitch, but a sweaty Arribas wasn't buying. "I'm not voting for anyone," the Cuban exile exclaimed. "They keep on raising my taxes without any services." Winton responded, through the translator, that he is different; he plans to improve city performance. "Politicians offer plenty but deliver little," the elder man shot back.
Arribas complained about the neighborhood homeless who steal things from his yard. Winton listened and took notes. Then he pledged to look into the problem if elected. A hesitant Arribas offered the challenger his vote. "We need to change," the exile said. "But we can't change the way we did in Cuba." He shook Winton's hand.
At 2:00 p.m., after knocking on the doors of 100 homes, Winton headed north to Legion Park in Morningside to meet Haitian businessman Georges William. The Miami Police Department was sponsoring a community rally under the tall shady trees. Rap music blared from a tower of speakers as Winton made his way through the mostly Creole-speaking crowd. He found William, who got straight to the point. "There is a strong vote in the Haitian community," William said. "If you are willing to come in and do something for the community, it could make a difference. Maybe you can do something for me." Winton did not answer, but agreed to meet with William at his office to discuss the issue further.
Next the Grand Cherokee headed south to Coconut Grove's Dog Park for a picnic sponsored by the Center Grove Homeowners' Association. Parents sipped cold beer under banyan trees as dogs and kids ran around. Plummer paraphernalia littered the place, a sure sign the incumbent and his entourage had stopped by. Undaunted, Winton began walking up to voters and engaging them in conversation. "Plummer stood on a corner and had people come up and kiss his bishop's ring," teacher Mike Garcia observed of the commissioner's method of seeking voters. He pledged his support to the challenger.
Winton decided to eat a late lunch, so he joined the hot dog line. Then he pitched the cook with his message of change. "How are you going to do it?" responds Guy Hamilton, whose athletic figure towered over Winton's five-foot five-inch frame. As Hamilton turned over a hot dog on the barbecue, Winton talked about empowering neighborhoods.
"That sounds like rhetoric," Hamilton answered snidely. "You sound like the coach at Notre Dame." Then he turned his back on Winton.
The candidate's face turned bright red, and he lost his cool. "Turn around and look at me when I talk to you," Winton yelled. "Now, I am willing to go in there and fight for you! I'm not afraid of anything! But I need your help to do it!"
Hamilton was taken aback. He handed over a hot dog as a peace offering. "I'm willing to help if you are willing to do it," Hamilton answered.
Winton accepted the deal and stepped back to eat. "That's the part of me my wife said will not allow me to be a politician," Winton said between bites. "Ask me any question, and I will give you an answer. Don't give me shit. When I get shit, I get pissed off."
Winton's approach is not exactly orthodox. If he doesn't know the answer to a question, he admits his ignorance rather than manufacture a nebulous statement. On three occasions in New Times's presence, Winton argued with potential voters, even advising four of them to vote for Plummer. The businessman also said he really didn't want the job but felt obligated to run. If he lost, no big deal, he would return to making money at his real estate company. If he won, he would not commit to a second term. "Winton was so refreshing. I don't think I ever heard anything like him," comments Tucker Gibbs, a Grove activist. "What you see is what you get."
Winton's place among wealthy business owners also makes him a rarity in Miami politics. The candidate acknowledges that his affluence has pushed him into a social stratosphere that rarely allows contact with working folks. "So I went out to the neighborhoods and met blue-collar laborers and schoolteachers. I realized I had lost contact with the ordinary Joe Blows out there," Winton comments. "I was essentially back in the environment I grew up in. I learned that no matter what walk of life they come from, there are lots of good people in the world."
Five o'clock in the morning on November 2, election day. Winton wakes up hungry but can't eat; his nerves won't let him. He has slept for only about half an hour. He is tired and eager to get the day over with. Wearing a white dress shirt, dark blue slacks, and a red tie, the candidate kisses his family goodbye and bolts out of the house. By 6:30 a.m. he has arrived at election headquarters: the Fraternal Order of Police union headquarters on Calle Ocho. Though the cops endorsed Plummer, they lent Winton the use of their facility. It's raining, and Lorenzo has said election-day showers favor the incumbent. Just one more thing to worry about. Then Winton realizes he has misplaced his cell phone. "I figured that," Lorenzo pipes up. "I got one for you."
Eloy Garcia introduces himself as Winton's driver for the day. The fit firefighter, a bundle of energy, pilots Winton's Cherokee to a majority Cuban precinct at Silver Bluff Elementary School. Poll workers, some volunteer, some paid, distribute cards bearing their candidates' names and punch numbers. Rosa Maria Bernal hangs at the end of the line, closest to the poll entrance. Bernal stalks undecided voters with a quick lecture, then pushes Winton's card into their hands. "Remember to vote against Plummer," Bernal pitches a young mother as she drags her daughter to school. "We have to make a change." The process amuses Winton. "What a zoo this is," he comments while observing the operation.
Around midday they make their way to a precinct inside Fire Station No. 8 in the Grove. Later they head to Northeast Miami. Winton tells his poll workers the campaign is going strong and urges them to keep up their efforts. During a late afternoon stop at Wynwood's Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community Center, Garcia honks his horn to inspire the five poll workers clustered on NW Second Avenue. Winton lowers the passenger window, sticks his head out the window, and cheers as he punches his fist in the air. His son Matt, sitting in the back seat, laughs.
On the way to Shorecrest, Garcia comments on Winton's peculiar behavior. "You know what ... I hope to God you never change. I hope to God politics doesn't change you," the firefighter says. "You are sincere right now, and those people love you because of it. I hope you don't let them down."
Winton pauses for a minute. "I hope I don't change either."
What can be expected from the freshman commissioner? His campaign showed Winton can move quickly to achieve something he believes in. He took orders from Lorenzo and executed them well. He was charming. He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
But from his first day in office, Winton's commission colleagues have outsmarted him. Moments after the election, fellow commissioner Arthur Teele moved into Plummer's old office, probably the largest place with the best view at city hall. Though tradition called for Winton to take over his vanquished opponent's digs, Teele got there first.
Winton also lost out by being appointed to oversee MSEA on November 16. Each commissioner directs a powerful body like the DDA or the Bayfront Park Trust, which supervises affairs at the city's central park. The MSEA appointment, which Winton termed satisfactory, has little future. The authority's central task is to control the Miami Arena, which will be overshadowed by the new American Airlines facility after January 1.
Winton could make up for both slights, though, if Carollo appoints him commission chairman, which is still a possibility. And he'll pick up on the customs of city hall quickly. Experts give him six months to learn the ropes.
The novice commissioner is optimistic and perhaps naively ambitious. He says there should be one clear standard to measure his tenure. "The knock on me early on was that I was a downtown guy who would ignore the neighborhoods," he says. "If we get out of being the fourth poorest city in America to somewhere in the middle, then I will have succeeded."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter