Philip Hamersmith: 1946-1999

It came as no surprise that Phil Hamersmith's memorial service this past Sunday was a standing-room-only affair. Hamersmith, who died last week after suffering a heart attack, had been a political force in South Florida for more than twenty years. The list of politicians who came to pay their final respects is simply too long to include here. Sitting in that chapel, however, I couldn't help but think something was missing, that the solemn nature of his funeral service seemed at odds with the man himself. There were simply too many stories about Hamersmith that needed telling and too little time in which to tell them.

If ever someone deserved an old-fashioned Irish wake, it was Phil Hamersmith. Plus, and let's be frank here, some of the better stories shouldn't be told in a house of God.

Such as the time during a contentious county commission meeting eight years ago when he blasted then-County Commissioner Charles Dusseau during a zoning hearing. Dusseau had been particularly pompous that day, droning on about how he was offended by all the lobbying that occurred on the issue. After the votes were cast and his client had lost, Hamersmith stood up, wagged his finger at Dusseau and exclaimed, "Fuck you!"

"What did you say?" a stunned Dusseau responded, even though everyone in the crowded commission chambers had heard it clearly.

"Fuck you!" Hamersmith repeated, even louder this time, before stalking out of the room. No doubt hundreds -- make that thousands -- of people over the years have wanted to offer that sentiment to any number of commissioners. But Hamersmith was the only person brazen enough to do it.

Or such as the time in the early Seventies when recluse billionaire Howard Hughes died. The media were filled with reports of phony wills turning up here and there. Hamersmith got the idea of placing a classified ad in the National Enquirer offering people their very own Howard Hughes will for one dollar, with their name included as sole beneficiary. "He got thousands of responses," recalls political consultant George DePontis.

Or such as the time, also in the Seventies, when he was working on the staff of Maurice Ferre, who was then mayor of Miami. Ferre had decided to hold his birthday party on Watson Island and Hamersmith was given the assignment of getting the largest American flag he could find and stringing it between two large trees. The image of the athletically challenged Hamersmith trying to climb those trees, and then nearly being blown away along with his immense flag, is unforgettable to anyone who saw it, as were his words as he hugged the top of the tree for dear life: "Jewish boys aren't supposed to do this sort of work!"

Personally I owe Phil Hamersmith several debts of gratitude. When I first arrived in Miami eight years ago, he more than anyone else helped me make sense of the political landscape. He introduced me to people and encouraged others to take me seriously as a reporter, even though New Times was a fairly new and somewhat unknown publication at the time.

He understood reporters because he was once a reporter himself, and I suspect a part of him always remained a reporter. He knew how to cut through the bull and offer a lively quote that would perfectly capture an issue. Miami is going to be a duller place without him. And a sadder one for me.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede