BY BUDDY NEVINS
Nick Navarro was uncharacteristically quiet in the courtroom in 1986, the first time I had seen him with little to say in the years I had covered him.
I was being held in contempt of court for refusing to testify about remarks Nick made to me concerning his reasons for firing a number of deputies when he took office.
During a break in the proceedings while the judge considered whether to send me to jail, Nick walked over to me, leaned over and whispered in his heavy Cuban accent: “Don’t worry, guy. I put you in a private cell.”
The newspaper’s legal hit team which included Ray Ferrero, now chancellor of Nova Southeastern University, kept me out of jail.
And even though I was standing on journalistic principals and not any loyalty to Nick, he always appreciated that I was willing to be held in contempt rather than talk about his off-the-record remarks.
I had known Nick for years like any other local reporter
He was the ultimate showboat, the Muhammad Ali of law enforcement. A long-time undercover cop, he was the go-to expert on drug smuggling during the Miami Vice era. A headline grabber, he knew how to turn a drug bust of six kids with a pound of dope into a front-page story.
Nick once got in a highly publicized fight with the State Department for raiding some drug houses – in the Bahamas. He was an adviser for the movie “Scarface.” He had helped bust the famed jewel thief and murderer Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy and Mafia financier Meyer Lansky. He knew his way around reporters, was solicitous of our needs, and respected our deadlines.
I covered him as a police reporter in the 1970s and early 1980s, even going on a raid with his undercover squad. But it was during his 1984 campaign for sheriff that I really got to know Nick.
How a Republican Became Sheriff
Broward in 1984 was, if anything, even more Democratic than today. Condo power was at its height, as tens of thousands of FDR Democrats retired to places like Hawaiian Gardens, Century Village and Sunrise Lakes. Those D’s were highly-partisan and voted in huge numbers.
The sheriff was George Brescher, a soft-spoken lawyer and political novice appointed by Gov. Bob Graham to fill a vacancy. About a year before the election, Brescher called his undercover boss Navarro into his office and fired him.
It was big news. Everything Navarro — the most famous cop in South Florida– did was big news. Brescher hinted darkly at corruption among Navarro’s undercover squad, but when challenged for evidence, publicly backed down.
Navarro quit rather than take a demotion. Then he filed to run against Brescher, first as a Democrat and then switched to become a Republican.
Democratic big wigs like Broward Party Chair George Platt, now a lobbyist, started to worry. The publicity shy Brescher was no match for media savvy Nick.
“I’m not comfortable sticking my nose in the cameras,” Brescher said at the time. Nick had no such qualms.
So Democrats cooked up the most ill-advised tactic I can remember in decades covering politics – the party sued Nick to kick him off the ballot.
The pivotal meeting took place in Platt’s office. All the usual Democratic powerbrokers were there – County Commissioners Nicki Grossman and Marcia Beach, former U. S. Rep. Ed Stack, powerbroker and Graham patronage chief Steve Josias and former sheriff Bob Butterworth.
“They passed around copies of a proposed lawsuit against me and talked about Brescher’s sputtering campaign. Getting me removed from the campaign seemed like the best strategy at that late date. No one was concerned that it would leave the Republicans without a viable candidate,” Nick later wrote in his book “The Cuban Cop”.
Platt and company charged Nick had violated the state election law by changing parties too close to the election day.
The case stayed on the front page and evening news as it jumped quickly from the Circuit Court to the Fourth District Court of Appeals and federal courts in Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta.
Through it all, Nick had one message for the cameras and microphones: “The Democrats are trying to deprive you, the voters, of your right to choose who should be sheriff.”
Sunrise Mayor John Lomelo was a Platt opponent. Still, Lomelo said it best when he criticized “the stupidity of George Platt giving him ( Nick) all that free publicity.”
Nick won with 52 percent of the vote. In a Democratic county. He held office eight years.
Democratic Sour Grapes
The night of the election, reporters and Broward political world gathered in the Government Center to hear the results in this pre-Internet era. Democratic Party insiders were angry and blamed the media for giving Nick so much ink during the month-long court fight.
As the reporter for Broward’s biggest newspaper, I was an obvious target.
As it became clear that Nick had won, the tipsy wife of a Democratic activist came up to me and yelled: “This is all your fault.”
Then she threw a glass of wine on me. As least it was white wine.
The sour grapes displayed with that thrown wine continued. The Democrats pushed on with their ill-advised law suit despite the election results. They finally dropped it after New Years.
Eighteen months later I was in front of a judge being held in contempt.
Nick had told me right after the election that he was going to cut out “the dead wood” in the sheriff’s department when he took office. One of the deputies he fired was Sgt. Tim Campbell, whose brother was lawyer and later state Sen. Skip Campbell.
Campbell sued Nick. Skip Campbell wanted me to reveal what Nick had said about his brother when speaking off-the-record.
I wouldn’t talk because I felt it was wrong to reveal what sources say off-the-record. I was held in contempt, but stayed out of jail.
I didn’t see much of Nick after that. In Miami to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, I missed his spectacular campaign loss in 1992.
When I learned of his death this week, I couldn’t help but remember that Nick was responsible for two of the most memorable events in my career – being held in contempt and having wine thrown on me.
R.I.P., Nick. Thanks for the memories.
That’s me with hair, 1985