'Balding, Bearded One'

A Pompano populist plans a city takeover

Roy Baker uses a lot of code names, which can make it hard to unravel the meaning in the sharply analytical political columns he writes for Pompano Beach's little weekly newspaper, the Sentry. When Baker refers to "Goliath," for instance, the casual reader likely doesn't know he's talking about Tom Johnston, a powerful, string-pulling City Hall lobbyist. Baker gives all the major political players in Pompano customized monikers that only an insider could decipher.

The cryptic columnist uses clever names like "Her Artness" for Commissioner Kay McGinn, who sells paintings for a living; disparaging ones like "Mr. Oblivious" for Commissioner Ed Phillips, who is prone to political miscalculation; and bland ones like "Hizzoner," for Mayor Bill Griffin, whom Baker opposes at every turn.

But I think it's time to slap Baker with a nickname of his own: "Mr. Invisible." The man is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside fish wrapper. Never been seen. The only human who communicates with him at all, it seems, is Ross Shulmister, the Sentry's publisher, and then only via the Internet. "I've never spoken with him and never seen him," says Shulmister, or "the balding, bearded one," as Mr. Invisible calls the publisher. "I really don't know who Baker is. A lot of people think he might be an invalid, since he never goes out."

Ross Shulmister eyes power at City Hall
Colby Katz
Ross Shulmister eyes power at City Hall

Shulmister says he believes that Baker, whose column, "Half-Baked Opinions," began in the summer of 2001, is likely a retired newsman from the North. But I suspect something else: Baker is Shulmister. The similarities are striking: Both men have vast knowledge of City Hall and can often see four moves ahead in the never-ending political chess game; both have exactly the same opinions on the issues; and both soften their polemics with down-home humor and an as-if-all-this-really-mattered attitude.

I ran my theory by the balding, bearded one, who remarked, "I've heard it before -- Tom Johnston believes I'm Baker too. And I have to say that Roy Baker would be a great alter-ego."

Then the publisher admitted that there is no real "Roy Baker," that it's a fictitious name, but he insisted, with much bemusement, that he really didn't know his columnist's true identity.

It may remain a mystery who Mr. Invisible is, but there is no question what he is: one of the tools in Shulmister's civic arsenal, which also includes a talent for grassroots organizing and some serious courtroom know-how. Behind Shulmister's friendly, Southern-tinged cordiality lurks raw political motivation. I've heard him compared to Napoleon, and not just because he's kind of short. Shulmister wants to seize power, to run the current sold-out riff-raff out of office, to turn the powers-that-be into the powers-that-were. The difference is, Shulmister doesn't want the reins all to himself -- he wants to hand them to the regular folk in his town.

In this quest, he's become the bane of the corporate drones, the Stepford wives, the Chamber of Commerce block of voters who, as they plunder the place, chant the thought-killing slogan/mantra, "Go Pompano Go!"

The 62-year-old Shulmister wants to build a populist Pompano, and after a decade and a half of trying, he might just do it. He may soon topple the drones' figurehead leader, Mayor Griffin, and he's effectively stalled one of the largest and most controversial development projects (and future boondoggles) in Broward County: the Griffin and developer Michael Swerdlow-backed International Swimming Hall of Fame to be built on public beach.

He's intent on destroying Griffin's political career, which is a bit ironic if not downright Frankensteinian. Shulmister, you see, helped make Griffin by endorsing his original candidacy and supplying him with a slogan. Only after Griffin was elected did he realize he'd created a monster, whom he's now intent on destroying.

And we owe all this drama to a bunch of development junkies who decided to widen a residential road 15 years ago. At the time, the Georgia-born Shulmister was happily ensconced in his law practice. The brunt of the fighting he'd done in his life was over Vietnam. After earning an electrical-engineering degree from the University of Florida, he volunteered for the war in 1964 and became a decorated fighter pilot. After combat, he remained active in the Air Force reserves until 1994, earning the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Meanwhile, in civilian life, he returned to UF for law school and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1973. After a stint as a prosecutor in Alachua County, he began a law practice in Fort Lauderdale. With his wife, Benita, he moved to south Pompano's comfortable High Ridge Estates in 1977, where the couple raised two children.

And it was there, in 1987, that Shulmister got his first taste of politics, Pompano-style. The commission, egged on by the Chamber of Commerce, decided it wanted to widen McNab Road into a major east-west thoroughfare. Shulmister felt the change would ruin his neighborhood. And he wasn't alone. Hundreds of residents, led by political activist Joyce Tarnow, also detested the idea of eight lanes of screaming traffic outside their doors. They joined to form the McNab Road Coalition, and thanks to their efforts, McNab has yet to be widened, despite a continued push by business interests.

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