Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: South Florida’s name-game politics has a familiar ring

Oh, how she lorded it over that nondescript loser. “We have gone past the days when any nondescript Hispanic name could go on the ballot and defeat any Anglo sitting judge.”

Miami-Dade County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz might have added, in her victory harrumph, that it helps when the Anglo judge has $405,000 in campaign contributions to her nondescript Hispanic opponent's $94,037.

But if voters were allowed an election do-over, I suspect they'd now prefer a nondescript candidate of any ethnicity to Schwartz (who distinguished herself during the campaign when, in a pique over the display of an opponent's campaign sign, she told a convenience store clerk to commit a lurid act upon his own person.)

The judge was rebuked by the Cuban American Bar Association for suggesting that “some or all of your Hispanic colleagues on the bench achieved their positions by virtue of a 'nondescript Hispanic name' and not because of their hard work, professionalism and other qualifications.”

Schwartz had done what candidates, especially those who've just won reelection, usually have the good grace to avoid. She broached a long-held assumption hereabouts that in piddling local elections that get scant media coverage, clueless voters tend to go with names that evoke a familiar ethnicity. Or just sound familiar.

The winning ethnicity varies by city or county. In Broward County in 2008, three well regarded Hispanic incumbent judges all lost reelection bids to little-known candidates with Jewish-sounding names. “Three very qualified judges lost their seat for what we believe was just their last name,” Carmen Cuetos, former president of the Broward Hispanic Bar Association, said after the election.

Which might explain why longtime assistant public defender Olga Maria Gonzalez-Levine was elected a Browrad County judge in 2012 running as Olga M. Levine.

Even better than the correct ethnic-sounding name is a name similar to that of a well-known politician. Political wonks figured that voters had confused Diana Wasserman-Rubin, the ethically challenged former Broward County commissioner, and a Cuban-American, with Broward political icon and well-known Jewish mother, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

South Florida's most notorious pretender to a political dynasty was John G. Plummer, a onetime school bus driver who in 1980 ran for the Florida House of Representatives in Miami, where Plummer was a magic name. J.L. Plummer was a city commissioner and his brother Larry Plummer was a state representative. The Plummer brothers were white. John was black, which might have tipped off voters that he was not of the same clan. Except that John ran a stealth campaign: no photos, no interviews, no public appearances. All voters saw of him were campaign posters that featured the same typeface favored by the Plummer brothers.

John's winning campaign slogan: “The family name Plummer speaks for itself.”

The case of mistaken identity got him 38,147 votes to his opponent's 33,995. The gimmick, however, was only good for one two-year term. Plummer, an utterly ineffective legislator, was drummed out of office in 1982.

Judge Schwartz should take notice. That's what happens when voters, feeling misled, get a do-over.

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