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Opinion Column
For the week of November 15 through 21, 2000

Florida's colorful history outshines present

Commentary by PAT MURPHY


So, the rest of America is realizing that Florida isn’t just the vacation land idyll of retirees or playground for tanned and carefree singles.

As a native son, child of the Depression of the 1930s, who earned his spurs as a newspaperman during 20 years with The Miami Herald, I can testify that recent scandals – the questionable vote tally in Palm Beach County, the tug-of-war over Elian Gonzalez, savings and loan scams, waves of drug money, vote fraud in Miami city hall – are amateur tomfoolery.

Yesteryear was rich with evil.

Florida’s Gold Coast of the late `40s and early `50s thrived with mob-run illegal gambling, luring fashionable northern elite, as well as moneyed Latin Americans, to glittering casinos.

It was protected by the likes of Jimmy Sullivan, a popular traffic cop whose whistling routine at a busy downtown Miami intersection led to election as Dade County sheriff. Law enforcement treated violent mobsters, including Al Capone, as celebrities.

Sullivan later was one of many jailed after U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., took his televised racket-busting hearings to Florida.

Florida had the "Pork Chop Gang" of Panhandle legislators who held back progress for decades. The KKK also terrified blacks in rural Florida.

For old-fashioned corruption, nothing equaled Monroe County, the 133-mile stretch of islands from mainland Florida to Key West.

My year there (1952-53) as a young reporter was an eye-popping adventure.

The county was controlled by the Democratic machine of state Rep. Bernie Papy, outwardly a small-time liquor dealer and small loan operator, always in a pork pie-style straw hat and chewing an unlit cigar stub. Immensely powerful and wealthy, Papy’s politically rotten Monroe County was his fiefdom.

Papy’s power flowed from ruthlessness and benevolence. Stories of spontaneous generosity – handing out $20 bills to passersby in front of his office – were legendary and important on Election Day, as were tales of disloyal Conchs being roughed up.

Papy’s lieutenants were something, too. One was Sheriff Berlin Sawyer, a glad-handing, aging hack with a blind eye for local wickedness. My most memorable moment with Sheriff Sawyer was when Rose Miller, a Mae West almost look-alike and owner of the wide-open Rose’s Tea Room bordello, showed up to openly hand out Christmas cards to Sawyer and his deputies with crisp new bills showing through oval peepholes – her "Thanks!" for allowing illegal prostitution to flourish.

On Election Day, I watched Papy’s precinct workers hand out small bills and bottles of booze to some voters within sight of polling places.

It was no secret that Papy’s friends got breaks on property taxes, too.

One of my most controversial stories was exposing a traditional Navy stag party in a huge downtown auditorium, where male sailors had sex on stage with women. The story resulted in several Navy officers being cashiered out of the service – but no action from local prosecutors, except resentment toward me.

Papy’s empire crumbled after Miami newspapers spread the word of sleaze on the Keys, and state auditors found grandiose embezzlement in the Overseas Highway Commission, which managed the island-hopping road in the Florida Keys.

My conscience says good riddance. But as a newsman, oh, how I miss those days.

 

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