When Politics Gets Really Rough

Winston Churchill said it best: "Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous." Miami's most venerable political consultant, Phil Hamersmith, has a new appreciation for the British statesman's pithy observation. And he gained it just in time to carry his battlefield injury into this week's elections.

The scene of the skirmish was Hamersmith's own Coral Gables office, where he was meeting with Dade County Commissioner Mary Collins, discussing her campaign budget. Somehow the subject of the proposed performing arts center arose. This was Monday, March 1, the day before the commission was scheduled to vote on selecting a site for the center. A week earlier Collins had voted against making a selection.

Hamersmith was a consultant not only for Collins and eight other commission candidates in their recent election campaigns, but also for the Greater Miami Opera, which will benefit from a new performing arts center. He urged Collins to support the consensus site, on donated land along Biscayne Boulevard, adjacent to the Miami Herald building. Sitting beside Collins during the discussion was Virgilio Perez, a community activist and Collins supporter. Perez objected. Collins should vote against the plan, he said.

"They started arguing about it," Collins recalls. "They got really emotional." Perez told Hamersmith, whom he was meeting for the first time, that he thought it improper to lobby Collins.

Hamersmith says he replied, "This is my office and I'll talk about anything I want." Besides, Hamersmith reasoned, Collins's vote on the issue could adversely affect her campaign and fundraising ability, so it was a relevant subject.

As tensions rose, the two men began shouting at each other. The breaking point for Perez, according to Collins, came when Hamersmith uttered a bit of profanity. "Phil swore at him," Collins says. "I think that was the big thing that upset Virgilio."

And what did Hamersmith say?
"I can't repeat it," Collins demurs.
"In my whole life I never used a word like that."
Could it have been the "F" word?

"Yes," she admits sheepishly. "I guess that word is common now, but I've never been able to say it."

An offended Perez got up to leave, Collins recounts. But Hamersmith apparently thought he was about to be attacked, so the stocky consultant leaped up as well. The two men confronted each other in the middle of the room. Perez, who is a few inches taller than Hamersmith, shoved the consultant, who lost his balance and began toppling backward.

The sight of two grown men fighting over Collins proved too much for the commissioner. "Oh my God!" she gasped as Hamersmith and Perez collided. "What are you doing?"

Hamersmith began to fall, and on his way down he knocked over his newly purchased office chair. With a sickening thud he landed on the chair's arm, which proved to be made of stronger stuff than Hamersmith's ribs. Two of them cracked. "You could say I fought the chair and the chair won," the 46-year-old consultant says today. "In the movies, when you fall on a chair, the chair usually breaks. This wasn't a movie, though."

It may not have been a movie, but it was pretty dramatic stuff for Collins. Perez immediately left Hamersmith's office. The commissioner sat alone, slack-jawed, flabbergasted. "I was stunned because everything happened so fast," she marvels. "Phil got up and said he was fine. But he didn't look fine. He looked so pale. Really white. So I said he should see somebody to see if he was hurt. I stayed for a few more minutes and then I left."

Hamersmith eventually went to a doctor, who confirmed the seriousness of his injuries and ordered him to wear a corset-type brace until his ribs heal. He never reported the altercation to police, and wishes it had never become public. In fact, the political warriors now say there are no hard feelings, although Perez and Hamersmith haven't spoken since. "It was a very sorry incident," Perez concedes. "I'm embarrassed by the entire affair.


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