January 24, 2022
Former Commissioner J.L. Plummer, Miami’s longest-serving commissioner, dies
 
 
By Joey Flechas
 

Joseph Lionel “J.L.” Plummer Jr., the former Miami commissioner with the longest-ever tenure in City Hall, embodied a different era of local politics. 

His 29 years on the dais were marked by turbulence and growth. Through shifting populations, riots and booming real estate development, he was there for the city’s growing pains, witnessing the messy and the magical of Miami — or, as he would say, “Miamah.” Like many who have held power from a seat on Dinner Key, he had deeply loyal followers and sharp-tongued critics.

Yet to his loved ones, his place in Miami’s political history is less notable than his roles as a father, a life partner and a daily breakfast companion at his old haunt, Coral Bagels, where he liked to play Liar’s Poker with his buddies. He looked out for the Grove’s peacocks, rode his motorcycle and took his boat out. He attended services at Gesu Catholic Church in downtown. 

Plummer, a mortician by trade who at 21 became the youngest person in Florida to receive a funeral director’s license, died on Thursday. He was 85 years old.

“He was such a loving partner of 40 years to Maria Cristina and an amazing father to all of us,” said his daughter, Dawn Plummer Ratiner, on Friday. “Miamah, his beloved city, has closed out an era. I take such pride in being his daughter and the legacy he has left for our family.”

From 1970 to 1999, Plummer was one of five commissioners who ran the growing city’s affairs. He was first appointed in 1970, and he won his first four-year term in 1971. Colleagues remember him as a steady presence, collegial and able to disagree without being disagreeable. 

He earned the nickname “Commissioner Kojak” for his focus on Miami’s police department — a concentration so deep that he installed a police radio in his big black Cadillac. He was known to show up at the scene of reported crimes before the cops even got there.

Rosario Kennedy, an attorney and former commissioner who served with Plummer, told the Miami Herald that she unexpectedly rode shotgun on one such occasion in 1986. She and Plummer were neighbors in the Grove, and he excitedly called his colleague to respond to a call he heard on the scanner.

“He said, ‘Come out, there’s a burglary in progress!’” Kennedy recalled in an interview Friday. She would later wait in the passenger seat while Plummer talked to police at the scene.

Former Mayor Xavier Suarez said Plummer’s tightness with police came in handy sometimes.

“If I heard that there was a homicide, or any kind of disturbance, and if I couldn’t get a hold of the chief or the city manager, I would assume that J.L. already did,” Suarez said. 

Suarez also recalled a moment in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He’d started directing traffic at a busy intersection, and Plummer’s home was a nearby refuge.

“He had his garage open to cook hot dogs and offer beer to anyone,” Suarez said. “He was your Joe Citizen-type person.”

Plummer also developed a reputation for being a budget hawk who didn’t like unnecessary spending, though critics questioned this in his later years when the city sunk into financial turmoil amid corruption. In 1996, after federal prosecutors twice questioned whether Plummer had warned then-city manager Cesar Odio about a major corruption investigation in City Hall, Plummer emerged unscathed. He was never formally accused of wrongdoing while other administrators were eventually ensnared.

Politically, Plummer’s opponents called for a changing of the guard while saying he didn’t do enough to stamp out City Hall’s corruption and dysfunction. 

When the city overhauled its governance and created single-member districts, Plummer could no longer rely on a broad coalition of voters across the city, including Black and Hispanic residents who saw him as an ally. In 1999, underdog Johnny Winton beat Plummer, ending the longtime politician’s career.

Among some in Miami’s political old guard, Plummer has always played a key role in lifting up the voices of ethnic minorities who were still building political power in Miami. 

“The one person in this entire county who’s been a bridge builder, not only between races and cultures, but between generations has been J.L. Plummer,” said the late Arthur Teele Jr., a former commissioner who served with Plummer, on the night Plummer lost in November 1999. “He represents the best the city’s ever had.” 

On Friday, former Mayor Tomas Regalado said Plummer deserves credit as a supporter of Miami’s Hispanics.

“This is a loss. This is the last of the true Miamians that helped the Hispanic community,” Regalado said. “This guy helped the Hispanic community so much when we were not as powerful.”

Plummer recently returned to City Hall. He quietly sat in the chamber to watch commissioners debate the future of former police chief Art Acevedo, who was fired amid controversy in October. Commissioner Ken Russell spotted him in the audience and snapped what could be his last photo in the building where he led a long career in public service.

The City Hall veteran gave Russell a quick piece of advice: “The fish that keeps his mouth shut never catches a hook.”

https://twitter.com/kenforflorida/status/1471648694718148613

Plummer is survived by his partner of 40 years, Palacios, two daughters Dawn Marie Ratiner and Joan Lorrain Livingston, two stepsons Alex and Eddie Montorro, one granddaughter Katherine and eight grandsons: Jake, Jesse, Nate, Luca, Marco, Franco, Eduardo and Charles Sawyer.

In lieu of flowers, his family requests donations be made to: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN 38105 or online at stjude.org.