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The man who would be sheriff: ex-cop Lionel Stewart (right)
The man who would be sheriff: ex-cop Lionel Stewart (right)
Sherri Cohen

His Shot at the Sheriff

Amid the glad-handing, backslapping, speechifying, and pamphleteering that is the monthly meeting of the Pembroke Pines Democratic Club sits Lionel Stewart, candidate for Broward County sheriff, muttering under his breath.

Every candidate who showed up tonight is allotted two minutes of podium time to preach to the choir about why he or she is the best man or woman for a particular office. Stewart is fidgeting, looking at his watch, waiting his turn.

"OK, OK, get it over with," he says out of the side of his mouth as David Brown, a candidate for supervisor of elections, runs well beyond 120 seconds. Miriam Oliphant, running for the same office, spends a good chunk of her time mentioning prominent Broward County politicos with whom it's been her honor to work.

"You hear a lot of people drop names," says Stewart sotto voce. "I don't drop names."

Finally it's his turn. He climbs the steps to the stage, pulls the microphone out of its stand, and steps in front of the podium. "I think the election for sheriff is about one issue," he says in a voice both clear and loud. "Qualifications. I've walked the walk and talked the talk. I've put people in jail." Then his elastic face wrinkles like a bulldog's, his eyebrows almost coming to a point directly above his nose as he ratchets his voice up a notch to deliver a favorite line: "No raids will be conducted in this county without my knowledge!"

Stewart is referring, of course, to the infamous swingers club busts in which sheriff's deputies arrested couples coupling at Trapeze II and Athena's Forum in February 1999. The arrests ultimately proved a colossal embarrassment to the sheriff's department.

Stewart's speech takes maybe a minute. "When you have something to say, say it and sit down," he says, doing just that.

What kind of politician would pass up an opportunity to bore a crowd senseless with self-aggrandizement? No kind. And therein lies the heart of the matter. Stewart is no politician. He's a career cop with 43 years of experience, many of those spent undercover busting foreign drug rings. He's worked in law-enforcement management positions overseeing hundreds of employees scattered around the state and around the country. He's an affable, self-described "common man" who likes to hang out in strip-mall cafés in western Broward.

But he's never held an elected office. And barring some unforeseen miracle, he'll lose again in his third bid to be the Broward County sheriff this September. That's because he's up against Ken Jenne, one of the slickest players Broward politics has ever produced. Jenne has an incumbent's name recognition, nearly ten times as much money, and friends in high places.

As Broward political wag Ron Gunzburger puts it, "Lionel is a sincere person who truly believes he would make a good sheriff. But he is so out of touch with the political reality of Broward County. He is the only person in the world who believes he could win."

Well, not quite the only person. Doris Barnett, a member of the Pembroke Pines Democratic Club, thinks Stewart can do it. "Until the fat lady sings, until I get up and sing, Lionel still has a chance," she says.

Stewart, 66 years old, was born and raised in Brooklyn. Though he was an only child, his parents couldn't afford to send him to college, so he joined the army at age 18. He was wounded while serving in the Korean War and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star while overseas. But the experience taught him that the life of a military policeman might be safer than being on the frontline. "Off the record," he says, "MPs waved people toward the front. Shortly after I got wounded, I said, "I want to do that.'" In 1952 he did.

Six years later he joined the army's Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, and began his career as an investigator. The work eventually took him all over the world as an undercover agent. His specialty was breaking up drug rings within the army; he spent two years in Vietnam "busting opium dens and marijuana houses with the Vietnamese national police," a period of his life he remembers with a gleam in his eye. He earned a bachelor's degree in military science while in the service and retired in 1971. End of career number one.

Career number two began in 1971 when Stewart joined the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, known these days as the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. In 20 years with the agency, he was stationed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Washington, Bangkok, Singapore, and points between. He worked undercover for more than nine years, and he was good at his job. In 1977 Asiaweek magazine wrote an article about Stewart, describing him this way: "At a crowded late-night bar where he kept bobbing up, then disappearing, with regular irregularity, he gained a circle of drinking acquaintances. When asked about his job the big muscular black American sidestepped."

From 1983 to 1988, Stewart was stationed in Washington, D.C., as the executive secretary to the career board, which was in charge of promotions and transfers for the entire DEA. It was just about impossible to please anyone at that job, he recalls. "I was hated equally by everybody. I don't like making deals, I don't like cliques. You'll see I don't hang around with a lot of people."

In 1988 he moved to Miami because "that's where the action was," he says. After three years as the second in command, he retired in 1991. End of career number two.

Stewart did a one-year stint with the Broward Sheriff's Office as a commander in the Crime Stoppers program, but was laid off when Sheriff Nick Navarro failed to gain reelection in 1992. Since then he's been officially retired -- between runs for sheriff, that is.

In 1996 he ran as a Democrat, then became a Republican when no one from that party was running. Upon learning that the Republicans were going to field a candidate, he switched back to the Democrats. That year he got about 9700 votes to Ron Cochran's 49,000. In 1998 he campaigned but didn't pay the filing fee -- 6 percent of the sheriff's salary -- and therefore didn't qualify. "I got some bad advice about running that year," he says.

This year he managed to pony up the filing fee -- $8313 -- though it put a serious dent in his war chest. As of the latest reporting period, June 30, Stewart had only $6440 in funds. He says he has about $10,000 now. Jenne had already amassed $91,000 as of the last reporting period.

Because both candidates are Democrats, the election will be decided in the September 5 primary. Republicans and independents are allowed to vote, a fact on which Stewart is betting heavily to pull off a victory. "I want to be the sheriff for the entire county," he says often, "not just for the Democrats."

He's also betting that Broward County wants a sheriff with a law-enforcement background. (Jenne is an attorney and career politician.) But as Gunzburger notes, the late Ron Cochran had that in spades, and Stewart ran against him anyway. "Lionel found Ron Cochran inept, he finds Ken Jenne inept, yet they are 180 degrees opposite in style. That's inconsistent. The only sheriff Lionel would find acceptable is Lionel."

To be a serious candidate, says Gunzburger, Stewart has to spend some time building a consensus, maybe do a few years as a local police chief. He'll have to find some powerful backers. He'll have to make some enemies. "You've got to be important to have enemies. People haven't given him any thought."

Stewart, of course, will hear none of that. He figures he'll get the anti-Jenne vote, which could be considerable, and if he can get out and convince enough people that the sheriff should be a cop at heart, he figures he has a chance. "Why would you elect a sheriff with no experience?"

Stewart doubts his opponent even knows how to load a gun.


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