'Balding, Bearded One'

Ross Shulmister eyes power at City Hall
Colby Katz

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."

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.  

"When I was doing that, I saw other problems and felt we needed a wider focus than just McNab Road," Shulmister recalls. "And that's when the South Pompano Civic Association [SPCA] came into existence. The driving force of it was, 'Let the people be heard.'"

Shulmister edited the SPCA newsletter, which, in 1995 became the Sentry, a name derived from a readers' contest. The newspaper, which Shulmister publishes in a bedroom office and is funded by his law practice, today barely breaks even, its publisher says. Still, it continues an admirable tradition of a small dissenting press begun by Ed Foley, another political critic, whose newspaper, the Pompano Ledger, closed last year after 21 years in business. The two men are close friends, and Foley's wife, Karen, now serves as the Sentry's business manager.

The end of the Ledger, incidentally, came at roughly the same time as the advent of Roy Baker. And Foley wrote a column in the Ledger that, like Baker's, was laced with nicknames. Shulmister maintains that Foley isn't Baker, but I wonder if the former publisher doesn't chip in with a column every now and then. Perhaps Roy Baker is a menagerie of people, like some believe Shakespeare was. Shulmister, obviously enjoying the speculation, says he wonders the same thing.

Bill Griffin's political career began the same year the Sentry was born. He ran for commissioner in District 2, and Shulmister endorsed him. The future mayor promised to promote only sensible growth and borrowed the SPCA slogan, "Let the People Be Heard," for his campaign.

When Griffin took office in March 1995, Shulmister had a majority of like-minded commissioners. When Griffin joined forces with then-commissioner George Melcher and the late Emma Lou Olson, City Hall became, for a short time, the voice of regular citizens rather than the chamber. "With Griffin, we had a three-person majority," Shulmister recalls. "For 11 months, we had control of the commission."

The majority fell apart when Griffin suddenly aligned himself with the Chamber of Commerce, became tight with "Goliath," and began backing large and controversial developments, including the McNab Road widening. "Griffin Jumps Ship," read a Sentry headline in February 1996.

About the same time, Shulmister began devising a mayor-at-large initiative to give voters the power to elect a mayor citywide. When commissioners rejected Shulmister's proposal in 1997, he collected more than the 5,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot in 1999. But the commission, largely at Griffin's direction, voted to delay it until the following year. Griffin had reason to oppose the initiative: It was intended to knock him out of office. The mayor was popular in District 2 but vulnerable in a citywide race.

With his initiative blocked by the commission, Shulmister decided to run against Griffin in 1999. Business interests lined up heavily behind the mayor, who raised $33,900 compared to the challenger's paltry $4,230. Shulmister called Griffin corrupt during the campaign and alleged he was nothing but a pawn of the chamber. Though the balding, bearded one was telling the truth, Griffin complained that Shulmister ran a "rotten" campaign.

The mayor also claimed that Shulmister was involved in some skullduggery of his own. The publisher, whose home is outside Griffin's district, listed a friend's apartment as his District 2 address. He didn't live there but promised to move before the vote. Dan Yaffe, a Griffin supporter and chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, accused Shulmister of lying about his residential situation at a commission meeting. Shulmister still blames Yaffe for the drubbing he took. Griffin won the District 2 race by a landslide.

Shulmister reacted by suing Yaffe for libel. He recently lost and is appealing. The ugly race provided a low point in the balding, bearded one's civic life. The residence-shuffling was a cheap trick, more worthy of his opponent. And the libel lawsuit was frivolous and vindictive. If the Pompano political scene is a murky cesspool, Shulmister showed in 1999 that he's not above diving in headfirst.

But whatever his faults may be, he far outclasses the lowly and depraved Griffin. Put it this way: At the same age that Shulmister was busy earning his first college degree, Griffin was hiding from police at a Fort Lauderdale auto dealership after trying to steal car parts. (Adjudication was withheld on his petty larceny conviction.)  

And now, it seems as if the better man might actually win the caged political death match between Shulmister and Griffin. The mayor-at-large initiative, after a two-year court battle waged by the city, finally made it to the ballot and was passed by voters November 5. That means Griffin's days are likely numbered, since he is up for reelection in March and is now more unpopular than ever, especially along the beach, where his plans for selling public beach and high-rise developments are generally detested.

Shulmister isn't gloating yet. He still has work to do. He's back in court fighting to block the transfer of a public parking lot and pier to Swerdlow and the swim hall project. The publisher claims the transfer, which was recently approved by the commission, violates the city's charter -- specifically the part that requires a referendum before recreational property can be sold. The city has delayed the transfer until Shulmister's suit is resolved.

If Shulmister wins, there will be another popular vote. And if that happens, the balding, bearded one will almost surely duplicate his mayor-at-large victory at the polls and the controversial swim hall will be a dead issue in Pompano.

And then Shulmister -- or "Roy Baker," I mean -- will definitely have some interesting fodder for his column.

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