Buddy Johnson is a salesman of himself

Buddy Johnson feels most comfortable in restaurants. He visits four a day sometimes. The chatter and the clatter of cutlery offer the illusion that he's less alone. The restaurant he goes to most these days is BuddyFreddys, where the waitresses greet him by name and he eats for free. Sitting at his table, he can see the sign outside with his name on it, and inside, in a frame, his tiny blue and gold Cub Scout uniform hangs on the wall. "To this day," he said one afternoon this spring, "people still say, 'You're the Buddy of BuddyFreddys?' And I'm very proud of that."

This restaurant remains the site of his best success. It is also now his most reliable refuge.

For most of the last six years, up until November, when he was voted out as Hillsborough County's supervisor of elections, Buddy was in charge of an office that became notorious for botched elections and mismanaged budgets. His personal real estate deals were ill-advised, at best, and maybe illegal.

He has been called a horror and his own punchline. That's from the headlines. He has been called inattentive and incompetent, careless and unfocused, sneaky and paranoid. That's from some of the people who know him and have worked with him. He's also been called affable and intelligent and friendly and winsome. Same people.

Buddy Johnson says he is who he has always been.

"At the end of the day," he said, "I'm a salesman."

The product never changes. The product is Buddy.

And that's never been harder to sell than now.

Three quick scenes.

First scene: Late March. Afternoon in a Plant City parking lot. Inside Buddy's spotless silver Mercedes with 142,000 miles on it.

He poured some thick, purple Mona Vie juice into a small, white paper cup.

"Ever tried it?" he said.

Mona Vie costs $40 a bottle. Converts call it a miracle drink. Critics call it a pyramid scheme.

"Makes everything better," he said. "I'm going to drink some now. I love the stuff. My cholesterol is down. My flexibility is up. There are 19 fruits and berries in here."

He was asked if he could make a living selling Mona Vie.

His eyes got wide.

"You can make a fortune," he said.

Second scene: Next night. Vizcaya tapas bar on Dale Mabry Highway. Buddy sat on a stool at the bar and talked with the bartender. The bartender said he used to have his own restaurant.

"I used to be in the restaurant business," Buddy told him eagerly. "We did $3.7 million in 1995."

The man nodded.

"Without serving alcohol," Buddy added.

Awkward silence.

"I didn't say that," Buddy said, "to make myself look good."

Buddy showed the man the book he'd been reading. The 4-Hour Workweek is a how-to manual, according to promotional materials, on "how to eliminate 50 percent of your work in 48 hours" and "how to fill the void and create a meaningful life after removing work and the office."

"Fascinating," Buddy said.

Buddy sometimes talks like he's a glossy brochure.

Chairman of the University of South Florida's Iron Bulls sports booster club. President of Plant City's Pregnancy Care Center. President of Plant City's Main Street historic preservation effort. Made 1310 on his SAT. Hit 70 free throws in a row. Didn't drink until he was 21. Sent baby food to "the Katrina people."

These things typically don't come up naturally in conversation. He brings them up.

He arrives at a lunch meeting with an old Latin textbook, for reasons that aren't quite clear, and declares: "I devour Latin."

That's Brochure Buddy.

Third scene: Same night. He pushed buttons on his BlackBerry and called a man he calls one of his best friends, from Gainesville, whom he sees two, three times a year.

"I'm doing good," he said into the phone. "I moved recently.

"My new address," he said, "is James, Chapter 1."

That the trying of your faith worketh patience.

He has quoted this piece of Scripture a lot recently to people who know him. They are his customers. He's trying to sell them an idea. The idea is that he's okay, not afraid, content.

The call ended.

"I feel," he said, "like I'm on ice, going 90 miles per hour."

• • •

Buddy was born in 1952 in a place where his name mattered.

Buddy's father, Elton, came here from Alabama during the Depression because his family had heard there was work picking fruit. He met Buddy's mother, Evelyn, at the local Chevy dealership. She kept the books.

They opened a SuperTest gas station south of town in 1954 and soon also had four seats, a table, a drink box and a grill. Four seats became 100, 250, 350, and with a catering business and a banquet room. Johnson's Restaurant was where the Chamber of Commerce met.

It's where Buddy grew up.

Buddy bused tables. Did his homework in back booths. The family slept at home, Buddy's brother once said, but lived at the restaurant.

At Plant City High, many of Buddy's teachers, coaches and classmates say, he was a model kid. A leader.

"An exceptional student," said Howard Marsee, who taught Buddy 10th-grade English.

"If he had to do 10 book reports, he'd do 26," said David Galloway, one of his friends from then, and now a local lawyer.

He played basketball, no superstar, but a committed defender. The Tampa Times named him one of the county's top four scholar-athletes his senior year. He was the valedictorian, in the National Honor Society, in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Key Club, sports editor of the newspaper, always class president. His photo is all over the yearbooks, which makes sense, he said one time, grinning, because he was the editor of that, too.

The preps, the jocks, the farmers' kids, the pharmacists' kids — Buddy was friendly with all of them. One friend was Sam Zamarripa. He grew up to be a Georgia state senator. Back then, though, he was a Mexican-American boy with a single mom and a sister with Down's syndrome.

"I came from a difficult background, and I was not a popular person," Zamarripa said on the phone. "But Buddy Johnson stands out because Buddy Johnson was my friend.

"Buddy moved in and out of a lot of circles. He crossed over," he said. "Everyone was a customer."

Buddy went to the University of Florida, but left after a year, he said, because he wasn't fit to be "a small fish in a big pond." After he graduated from USF in '76 with a degree in religion he did what seemed almost inevitable. He got into the family business.

Buddy and his brother, Freddy, who is two years younger, opened BuddyFreddys in 1980 with $2,000, or so goes the lore. The fare was hot, fried food from trays and red velvet cake on plastic-wrapped plates and pocket Bibles in a basket by the register.

Buddy and Freddy had two very different roles.

Freddy was in the back. Buddy was in the front.

"Fred seemed to be in the kitchen cooking, the muscle behind the business," said Ed Verner, the chairman of the Plant City Chamber of Commerce, "and Buddy was sort of the up-front person, greeting people."

It worked. Chamber meetings. Patrons waiting on the porch in rocking chairs. What he learned in restaurants, Buddy said not long ago, were the importance of building "the brand," and also what he called "the metrics" of the business: Customer count. Average check. Average turnover.

"In and out," he said.

His relationships were transactions.

His customers were connections.

• • •

This is a large part of how Buddy Johnson the restaurateur became Buddy Johnson the politician.

The state House seat for east Hillsborough came open unexpectedly in '91. That meant a special election. Those, political consultants say, tend to be popularity contests.

Buddy got a call.

The chair of the county's Republican committee wanted to know if he wanted to run. He never wanted to get into politics, he says now — but that's not true. He told reporters then that he "always thought the time would come for me to run, and the time has come." Buddy was conservative, pro-life, a family man, a small businessman. The committee chair called him "Mr. Clean."

But most important? Everybody knew Buddy.

He was elected in March '91, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

What he did in Tallahassee:

He sponsored 18 bills in '92. One passed. He sponsored 20 bills in '93. One passed. Twenty-four bills in '94. Three passed. Seven passed in '95. Zero passed in '96.

He tried to ban T-back bathing suits and gay marriage. He wanted to protect prayer in schools. Pushed for school choice. None of this became law. Republicans were the minority party, Buddy was a novice lawmaker, and even his political adversaries say that made legislation difficult to pass.

But still.

"Buddy Johnson?" Jack Ascherl said.

He's a financial planner in New Smyrna Beach now. Back then he was on the insurance committee of which Buddy was vice chair. They probably met about once a month for two years.

"I'm trying to picture a face," Ascherl said. "White hair? Medium build?"

Mike Corcoran was Buddy's legislative aide.

"I used to give speeches to civic organizations back home," said Corcoran, who's now a Tallahassee lobbyist. "He gave me a lot of responsibility."

What Buddy's most remembered for in Tallahassee, though, is one night in a hospital room only eight months after he was elected. The woman who was the attorney for the education committee Buddy was on was recovering from surgery. He visited her room. She said he wasn't invited. He said he was. She accused him of sexual harassment, he was taken off the education committee, and all of this came out in the papers just before the election in November '92.

Buddy called it dirty politics. "I'm the offended party here," he said.

He was re-elected, and again two years later. In '96 he was set to run unopposed — until he surprised everybody by saying he wouldn't run again, that he needed to be home with his kids. They were 11, 10 and 7.

His fellow Republicans asked him to reconsider. They thought they had a chance to take over the House that year — which ultimately they did.

"I don't know what he would have been," Daniel Webster, who became speaker of the House, said last month on the phone. "I just know I was going to make Buddy something."

Buddy went home. And what had looked like a big break, the election in '91, was in retrospect a turning point, but not necessarily in a good way.

He had gotten an important job. But he lost his two most important relationships.

"Everything changed in '91," Buddy said that night at the tapas bar, "when I became this public guy."

• • •

Happy hour. J. Alexander's. Buddy was on vodka tonic No. 2.

"The more I talk to you," he said, "the more interesting I think my life has been."

He has been married twice.

He married Kathleen Anders in April '81. They divorced in March '82. "Irretrievably broken," the records say. Anders still lives in the area and sells real estate. She doesn't want to talk about Buddy, or their marriage, or why it failed.

Buddy met his second wife not long after. Trina Delynn Hall was a cheerleader at Plant City High. They met at BuddyFreddys.

"I went in there with my parents to eat," she said on the phone this spring. "I was a customer."

They married nine days after her high school graduation. She was 18. He was 31. Phillip was born in '84, Steven in '86, Hannah three years later. The divorce came in June '91 — three months after the special election win.

"It was pretty much my decision. It wasn't his," she said. "I was a kid when I was married."

Buddy, sitting at the bar at J. Alexander's: "I said, 'Man, you picked a fine time to let me loose here.' Here I am, in the middle of a very successful political event, on a pro-family platform, and here I am getting divorced."

He always paid his child support, he paid three private school tuitions, and he tried not to miss school or sporting events. He coached his son's rec-league basketball teams. He took Phillip fly fishing in Colorado, he took Steven to the Grand Canyon, and two years ago he took Hannah to England to see her favorite band. Hannah calls him "the most amazing daddy in the world."

Buddy called Trina in March, after she had talked to the Times, and it was, she said, the first time in probably five years they had talked. Buddy thanked her, she said, for having been a good mother, and also for having said some nice things about him to the paper, and he wished her well with her treatments for breast cancer.

"Then," Trina said, "we talked about Mona Vie."

• • •

Buddy says he came back from Tallahassee to have more time with his kids. Also, though, the second BuddyFreddys, in Brandon, was open. There was a lot to do. But by January '97, the brothers were talking about splitting up, and by May it was done.

"Buddy," Freddy said this spring, "wasn't able to work on our business like I thought it needed. That's where it started getting sideways. We had grown more antagonistic."

Buddy bought out Freddy. That left him running the business on his own. Less than a year later, he sold it to Star Buffet, a Utah chain. He worked for the company for three years as a consultant, although in the last year, he said, he didn't work much. He's still on the board of directors.

Freddy, meanwhile, opened a new restaurant, called Fred's Market, close to downtown Plant City. He's doing well and soon there'll be four of them.

"I don't have any regrets," Buddy said at J. Alexander's.

"Well," he said. "I wish I had taken a full-bore BuddyFreddys bent, and would not have gotten politics involved.

"Surely," he added, "I could've been a better partner."

The brothers' relationship was strained for most of the last decade. Both of them say they've been talking more of late.

"All patched up," Fred said one recent morning.

Buddy's unemployed. He's living off savings.

Freddy was asked if Buddy might end up working with him again. A brothers' reunion?

"I just don't think it'd work," Freddy said. "I just don't think it'd be the right thing to do."

• • •

Buddy in his Mercedes with the "I'm jacked up on the juice" sticker on the back window pulled up to his parents' house in the country outside of town. His mother greeted him at the door.

Inside, sleeping on the couch, was his father. He's 94, very thin, can hardly see and is mostly deaf.

Buddy and his mother sat down at the dining room table.

"I wouldn't mind some coffee, Mom," Buddy said.

Buddy checked his BlackBerry as his mother talked.

"Buddy was a good child," she said. "He'd mind what we'd tell him."

She keeps scrapbooks of all that her first son has done, from high school, to BuddyFreddys, to Tallahassee and back.

After Tallahassee, after BuddyFreddys, Buddy needed a job. Buddy called his friends.

Jeb Bush was one of them. In 2001, the then-governor made Buddy the director of the Division of Real Estate in Orlando.

Jack Bowman, a Realtor from Seminole, was on the state real estate appraisal board, and worked with Buddy there.

"He's a pleasant guy," Bowman said on the phone. "But he had no competence whatsoever. What staff he had could never find him. Everyone there felt like he had no competence, didn't know anything about his job, and wasn't willing to learn."

Ashley Dashnaw was on the staff.

"He didn't really know what was going on a lot of the time," she said.

His supervisor, who was in Tallahassee, a man named Geoffrey Becker, lauded Buddy for his "accountability," "flexibility," and "extra effort."

Buddy's references on his application for the Hillsborough elections position included the vice president of Publix; the founder and former CEO of Outback; and Johnnie Byrd, who was the speaker of the House at the time. The governor appointed Buddy to the new position in 2003. The governor's office put out a statement calling Buddy "a dedicated public servant."

"My standards," Buddy told his new staff in Tampa, "are going to be way up there."

Now, at Buddy's parents' house, his mother got up from the table and walked over to a closet and came back with the two most recent scrapbooks.

The headlines aren't kind. "Buddy's bungled budget." "A poor public servant."

In the election of September '04, the votes were counted at one-fifteenth the normal speed. Buddy told reporters it was "a beautiful election." Last August, the tally stalled again. Buddy said his staff had done "a great job." Then, last November, votes weren't counted. Buddy talked to reporters about "the symphony of democracy."

Brochure Buddy.

The county attorney asked the assistant county attorney to write a memo about the office, and what was going on, and it portrayed Buddy as temperamental, secretive and sometimes deceitful with his subordinates.

After he lost the election last year, an audit said that Buddy broke state law by overspending his budget by $942,000, and that he left behind an unpaid $2.1 million bill for voting machines, even though the county commission had provided the full amount. Where had the money gone? What was it spent on?

Buddy likes to talk about his outreach work, his voter education, but is reluctant to discuss what did or didn't go on in his office, which probably is prudent, given the FBI investigation.

He has, though, over the last six weeks, called it "a tragic misunderstanding" and "the big budget implosion that happened." The office, he said, "wasn't perfect," but added: "That office was as good as any office in the nation — it just was, when put in context."

Buddy sat at the dining room table with his mother.

She said: "All I can say is, 'Lord, it's in your hands.' He'll take care of it. If they do find something, he'll have to answer to it."

His father, on the couch, made a shallow, sucking noise. Buddy's mother looked over.

"It's gotten really bad the last six months," she said.

"The headlines have been bad for the last few years," Buddy said.

"I was talking about your dad," she said.

Time to go. Buddy hugged his mother.

"We ought to plan a regular time," he told her, "when I come over."

• • •

On paper, Buddy has two houses — a 13th-floor Sarasota condo and a four-room house on a 20-acre Plant City plot.

Both properties are in foreclosure. He hasn't paid his taxes.

Cecil and Nita Bass, the elderly couple who sold him the Plant City property, are suing him, saying he defrauded them by secretly changing the contract to get $158,000 in additional financing. But Buddy has stopped making payments on the $520,000 loan he got from the Basses, leaving them without the income they expected would be a key part of their retirement fund.

The FBI's investigating.

Near the rear of the land, past some orange trees and a series of grand oaks, is the house he lives in, alone.

Inside, one recent afternoon, the front room had some clothes on the couch. A big black and white picture of him and his three children hung on the wall above his cluttered desk. The kitchen was mostly unused. A painting of his parents was propped up on a chest of drawers. The bed was unmade. A back room was filled with boxes of things for which a man in flux had found no place.

He says he likes this little house. He'd like to keep it if he can.

• • •

What happened? His name once meant one thing. Now it means another. A salesman needs his name.

"To me," said Zamarripa, Buddy's high school friend, "it sounds way off from the person I know."

"If something occurred," said Myrle Henry, a former Plant City pharmacist who worked with Buddy on the Main Street project in the '80s, "I don't think it was intentional.

"Buddy," he said, "is one of the good ol' boys."

Dan Nolan has a theory. He's one of his former deputies in the elections office.

"I don't think Buddy is an evil person," he said earlier this spring. "I just think it was a combination of competence he chose not to obtain, and arrogance. He had the tools. He could've gained the competence."

Nolan, an ex-military man, talked about OERs, or officer evaluation reports. They're almost always glowing, he said, but everybody understands that. Nobody, he explained, really believes their own OERs.

"I think at some point," Nolan said, "Buddy started to believe his own OERs."

• • •

Afternoon at BuddyFreddys.

He sat down at his table. One hour became two. Two became three. Black coffee, unsweet tea, ice cream cones.

"It's scary in some ways," he said. "It's all new. There's no BuddyFreddys. There's no elections office."

He took an insurance class in January and February and got his license. He could do that, although it has been hard to find work, he said, because of the headlines and the FBI. Or maybe he could trade stocks online. Drive an 18-wheeler? Wait tables at Bern's? He's thought about all these things, he said, or maybe he'll just sell Mona Vie. But in the Mona Vie hierarchy, he's a "Star 1,000," which means he's making about $9,000 a year.

He hasn't filed for unemployment. He says he won't file for bankruptcy.

The salesman says this is all a lesson. That everything will work out. He'll emerge better for it.

"I am not thinking woe is me because of all I'm going through," he said. "I'm thinking God's teaching me what he wants me to learn here."

Which is?

"I needed some pruning," he said. "The health of a tree is often enhanced by pruning. You prune it before the spring so it can grow again."

That sounded comforting. He thought about that for a second. Then his face changed. His fair skin turned slightly red.

"Then again," he said, "you've got a whole other set of stories about pruning."

No more Brochure Buddy now, if only for a moment, and no more James 1.

Now: John 15.

If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.

"Throw you," Buddy said, his eyes widening, "in a lake of fire."

• • •

Half hour later. The phone rang. The salesman again.

"I'm really okay with what I've done," he said. "I'm proud of my life. Twice the governor of the state of Florida has asked me to serve in very important positions. I'm tired of having my name dragged through the mud like this. I'm tired of taking a beating for a life I'm proud of.

"I know," he said, "what I've done."

Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Buddy Johnson is a salesman of himself 05/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 10, 2009 7:06am]

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