Miami-Dade County

The topsy-turvy life of former Miami-Dade commissioner ends in gunfire

Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner James ‘Jimmie’ Burke
Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner James ‘Jimmie’ Burke Miami-Dade County

Jimmie Burke’s life was a careening roller coaster that started with him picking cotton on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, spun him up to the pinnacle of political power in South Florida, and then dumped him back where he started, a dead-broke ex-convict limping home to the hardscrabble little South Georgia town where he grew up. Yet through it all, he never lost his giddy certainty that the world had dealt him a winning hand.

“He was a happy-go-lucky guy, affable, never seemed to be angry or depressed, no matter what,” recalls Miami attorney H.T. Smith, his friend and law-school classmate. “Through all the divorces and legal scrapes and even jail, he kept smiling.”

Burke’s luck finally turned indisputably bad a week ago when he called police in Waycross to report a domestic dispute with his sixth wife, Sonia. By the time they arrived, the cops say, the 68-year-old Burke was dead of gunshot wounds and his wife was in the throes of a drug overdose. She remains in jail on murder charges.

It was a sad and startling end for a man who is inevitably described by friends, whether they knew him for four years or 40, as amiable, affable and appealing. His friends in Georgia, who knew Burke as a struggling businessman rather than a once-powerful politician, are no less disconcerted than their Miami counterparts. They never heard him complain about anything.

“He was just so busy doing everything,” said Lamar Deal, who worked at both a small newspaper and a local theater group in Waycross that he and Burke launched. “If I was one-tenth the man he was, I’d count myself very lucky.”

He was just so busy doing everything. If I was one-tenth the man he was, I’d count myself very lucky.

Waycross businessman Lamar Deal

Waycross, where Burke was born and where he’s buried, is not exactly a one-stoplight town, but it’s close. The population has hovered around 14,000 for years. When Burke was a teenager during the 1950s, Waycross was so desperate for commerce that police used to patrol nearby highways, looking for out-of-state license plates — not to give the drivers tickets, but to escort them into town for a visit with the town’s Welcome World Committee, in hopes they’d spend a little money.

Burke’s father ran off from the family early, while his mother sometimes helped other families with their children or collected welfare. Burke spent his summers chopping cotton and cutting tobacco, dreaming of being James Brown’s drummer or, in less fanciful moments, joining the Air Force. But he did well in high school and won a scholarship to Tennessee’s traditionally black Knoxville College, the first in his family to go to college. His next school was anything but traditionally black: the University of Miami Law School, which never before had a black student.

“There were a few of us that entered in that first integrated class in the fall of 1970,” recalls Smith. “Some of us were a little ...shy... about whether we were wanted, or welcomed. We hung back a little bit. But that didn’t bother Burke at all. He was probably one of the more outgoing students in the whole law school, so we were not surprised at all when he went into public service.”

That didn’t take long. Burke, after graduation in 1973, stuck around Miami, practicing law while serving as a volunteer aide to various black members of the Dade delegation to the state Legislature. He ran for his own seat for the first time in 1979, and finally won on his third try in 1982. That began a stretch of 16 years in elected office — first in the state House, then as a Miami-Dade County commissioner.

In neither job did Burke author epic legislation. His signature bill in the House made Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a paid holiday for state workers, and as a county commissioner, he pushed through a law establishing an 11 p.m. curfew for kids under 16.

But he was good at something more fundamentally important to elected officials: bringing home the bacon.

“In terms of earth-shattering legislation — the Sunshine Law or campaign-funding reform, things like that — I just can’t, off the top of my head, think of any,” Smith said. “But he was very, very good at constituent services — just helping everyday people with problems in everyday life, somebody who didn’t get a government check they were expecting or needed a new stop sign on their street. And that is key for an elected representative.”

He was very, very good at constituent services — just helping everyday people with problems in everyday life, somebody who didn’t get a government check they were expecting or needed a new stop sign on their street.

Miami attorney and Burke friend H.T. Smith

In the Legislature, Burke’s skills extended to getting state money for local projects and organizations.

“I don’t ever remember him saying no to the community,” veteran lobbyist Ron Book says. “I’m not talking about giveaways to the private sector, I’m talking about governmental institutions and projects. If somebody wanted to do something for Miami-Dade County, there was never a time they asked for help that Jimmie wasn’t there to do it.”

Though Burke was a staunch Democrat, many Republicans found him surprisingly easy to work with. “To me, he was not extremely partisan,” remembers Miami attorney Miguel DeGrandy, a Republican who represented a West Dade district in the early 1990s. “He had to vote the party line on a lot of things, of course, but he was great to get along with, always happy to look for stuff we could work on together, and a real gentleman. He never had a bad word for anybody.”

DeGrandy’s opinion was widely shared. In 1986, Burke became the first black legislator to be named the house’s speaker pro-tem — essentially, the House’s No. 2 man, presiding over the chamber when the speaker was out. “I don’t care who you are, you don’t become speaker pro tem without having a large respect level among your colleagues,” Book says. “And Jimmie had it.”

When Burke left the Legislature for the Miami-Dade County Commission after a court ruled that its members had to be elected from districts rather than at-large — a change that made it much easier for minority candidates to win — his affability moved him ahead quickly. By his second term he was already chair of the powerful finance committee, which oversaw a budget of $2.3 billion.

“He always had a big grin on his face. He always seemed to be in a very good mood,” lobbyist Dusty Melton remembers. “There was a lightness to his step — he was a hale-and-hearty good fellow. I can’t ever remember seeing him angry.”

Yet there was also a certain sloppiness, especially after Burke moved to the commission. He was perpetually getting into scrapes — some minor, some eyebrow-raising — with the Florida Elections Commission over missed filing deadlines and misuse of campaign funds.

He used thousands of dollars of campaign money to pay child-support to an ex-wife, offerings to his church or dues to his Kiwanis Club chapter, and his committee payroll was studded with names of relatives and even old girlfriends. Meanwhile, the Florida Bar suspended his law license after the state Supreme Court criticized what it called “extremely sloppy accounting procedures” in his handling of a $150,000 lawsuit settlement.

“Organization and structure were not a part of his personal or professional life,” Smith says. “He was a big-picture guy, a deep thinker, with visions of how things should be and ideas about how to make things better. He was a guy who didn’t cross Ts and dotted Is, and unfortunately he didn’t surround himself with people who could do that for him.”

Even the most minor of Burke’s problems usually mushroomed because he regularly missed hearings or filing deadlines — not defiantly, but because his address was constantly changing, sometimes as often as four times a year. Burke seemed always to be running to or from a wife, an ex-wife or a girlfriend, and there were lots of names in each category. By the time Burke was elected to the county commission, his fourth marriage was already in disrepair.

Yet some of his friends reject the idea that Burke was on the sexual prowl. “I thought of him a person who needed validation, needed affection, needed companionship,” Smith says. “He was not a ladies’ man in the sense we usually think of that. He was a guy who was needy.... He fell in love real fast and he got married real fast, and after that, he met the woman and got to know her. It was a little backwards.”

He was not a ladies’ man in the sense we usually think of that. He was a guy who was needy.... He fell in love real fast and he got married real fast, and

H.T. Smith

All the alimony and child support Burke was paying contributed to another need: cash. “He was always financially challenged, all the time I knew him,” Smith says. “He came from a dirt-poor background, and even at the best of his financial moments, he was still struggling.”

It was the financial need that eventually did him in. In 1998, in a case that rocked county government, federal prosecutors issued a 25-page indictment accusing Burke and his top aide of taking a bribe from a California municipal bond-dealer in return for steering Miami-Dade bond business his way.

The alleged plot was a complicated one, involving secret bank accounts in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Bahamas. And jurors would later say they weren’t happy that the federal informant who exposed the deal didn’t have to serve any jail time. They voted to acquit Burke on seven of the nine accounts against him, and hung over another.

But they voted for conviction on a single charge, based on a recording from a hidden FBI camera that showed Burke stuffing $5,000 in bribe money into his pockets while burbling, “This is a wonderful country!”

Sentenced to 27 months in prison, Burke was released in February 2004, his good cheer seemingly undiminished. “You can either be bitter, or better,” he told reporters. “I feel better.”

But if prison didn’t burst Burke’s bubble, its aftermath came close. The best job he could find was a $250-a-week gig writing government grant applications for community organizations. “He was a little surprised how many ‘friends’ backed away from him, how many doors were shut,” Smith says. “He thought he should go back home where he would be loved, get a second chance, where he had family and friends.”

Characteristically, though, once Burke arrived in Waycross, he told everybody that the point of the move was to help make his hometown a better place. The city’s motto is “opportunity in every direction” and, said Burke’s friend Deal, that was the way he approached it.

“I know Jimmie had some problems in the past but he was all about doing good for the community,” Deal says.

Yet the hard financial times persisted for Burke. He became editor and publisher of the Times of the South, a small newspaper distributed mostly through the city’s black churches, but it folded. Burke turned to local theater, founding a company last year with Deal called Purlie Productions.

It staged several plays, including Purlie Victorious, written by the late actor Ossie Davis, a Waycross native who based it on his experiences growing up. One of the stars: Jimmie Burke. Some of Burke’s friends were surprised at his flair for comedy, but not Deal: “He was very brilliant and easy to talk to and very funny.”

Burke stuck to some of his old habits. He offered advice to Waycross city officials, which they gratefully accepted (“He really wanted to make Waycross a better place all around, he didn’t just claim to be from one side of town,” says city manager Raphel Maddox), became president of the county’s Democratic committee, and even served on the board of the local medical center.

And Burke married again. “I married a most amazing man,” wrote Sonia Burke on her now-deleted Facebook page on Sept. 28, 2014. “He appeared suddenly, stated his case and swept me off of my feet. We are two parts of one and I love him very much.”

Jimmie’s family and friends have little to say on the subject of the 58-year-old Sonia. Certainly they offer no reasons why she might have pulled the trigger on him multiple times on the afternoon of May 7. After Jimmie called the police (originally cops said Sonia placed the call, but last week they reversed themselves), they found him sitting on a couch inside a locked room.

“We were at their wedding and I’d seen her socially with Jimmie but I didn’t really know her,” Deal says. Son James Burke Jr. shrugged off questions about his father’s wife: “I didn’t have a real big, big relationship with her.”

Yvette Rodriguez-Burke, one of Jimmie’s former wives (they married shortly after his release from prison, but divorced in 2007), was stunned at the news of his death. They remained close friends after splitting and Jimmie even took her to dinner, complete with flowers.

“He was a good guy,” she recalled last week. “He was a bit of a womanizer, but he didn’t deserve to die over it.”

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