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National Politics

Tampa lawyer, political leader Bill McBride dies at 67

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 07:08 PM
TAMPA -

Bill McBride, who ran unsuccessfully for governor a decade ago and built Holland & Knight into one of the largest law firms in the country, died Saturday night while visiting family in North Carolina.

At 67, McBride was one of Tampa’s favorite political sons.

Though his friends and colleagues said he never slowed down, McBride suffered a heart attack in 2003.

"And he’s had two or three since over the last nine years" said McBride’s wife, Alex Sink, the state’s former chief financial officer, who narrowly lost the 2010 governor’s race to Rick Scott.

The couple had been married for 25 years and had two children, Bert and Lexi.

"Unfortunately, this time, he collapsed, and we just weren’t able to resuscitate him," Sink said.

McBride and his wife were visiting her family in Mount Airy, N.C., for Christmas.

Word of McBride’s death spread quickly among Florida Democrats and across the political spectrum Sunday, prompting a flurry of statements praising his contributions.

"Bill McBride was larger than life," said Bill Nelson, Florida’s longtime Democratic U.S. senator. "He was one of the great business, legal and political leaders of Florida, and he is a friend that many of us will miss."

"All those who knew Bill knew he was not only a tireless advocate for the Democratic Party, but a leader and true public servant to the people of Florida," said Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith.

"Bill McBride was a leader whose devotion, intelligence and commitment to service knew no bounds," said U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

"Bill McBride was a force for good in our community and a strong advocate for public education and civic rights. His mission in life was to serve Florida, and he accomplished that in innumerable ways. It feels like part of Florida is missing tonight."

"He served his country, his community, and his state with courage and a quiet resolve," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "Born to humble beginnings, he never lost sight of his obligation to serve those less fortunate."

 Scott called McBride a "great lawyer, a devoted public servant, a veteran and a talented leader."

"Florida is no doubt a better place because people like Bill McBride commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of others," the Republican governor said.

A longtime Democratic Party fundraiser, McBride mounted a run for governor in 2002, defeating Janet Reno, who had been Bill Clinton’s attorney general, in the primary. But McBride was soundly beaten by Jeb Bush in the general election.

The run for public office was his first and last, and some described him more as a behind-the-scenes player who was reluctant to get into the public side of politics. He lived a quiet life in Thonotosassa, and most people had never heard of McBride before he ran for governor.

"He just believed our state was going in the wrong direction under Jeb Bush," his wife said. "He ran a campaign based on supporting public education, supporting teachers and investing more money in education and he was right."

At the time, though, McBride said he would have stayed out of the race if either Attorney General Bob Butterworth or U.S. Sen. Bob Graham had decided to run.

Defeat took its toll on McBride, said Jim Davis, the former Tampa congressman who was a longtime colleague and friend.

McBride lost a little enthusiasm, but only for a while, Davis said.

"He bounced back and was active in helping others and particularly helping Alex, who nearly was elected governor. They were a team."

McBride’s death came as a surprise to many who knew him.

"He seemed as chipper as ever," Davis said. "I don’t think Bill ever slowed down very much. Bill was larger than life, and when he was part of a group, he was one of the leaders."

"He had a huge heart."

Two years after losing the governor’s race, McBride took on a new campaign — as president of the booster club at Armwood High School, where his son, Bert, played football and was on the track team. Daughter Lexi was a four-sport athlete.

McBride’s considerable business acumen and political connections significantly boosted fundraising efforts for Armwood’s athletic programs.

Born in Belleville, Ill., McBride grew up in Leesburg and graduated from the University of Florida in 1967. He enlisted in the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1971 and was awarded the Bronze Star.

After returning from Vietnam, McBride taught at Officer Candidates School at Marine Corps Base Quantico and retired as a captain.

McBride attended the University of Florida Law School, where he met Chesterfield Smith, a politically powerful attorney. After he graduated, McBride joined Smith at Holland & Knight and became the firm’s managing partner in 1992.

By the time he retired in 2001, McBride was credited with building the Tampa-based law firm into the seventh-largest in the United States.

Part of the formula was to pay partners less than other firms of equal size, and pay nonlawyers who worked there more.

With McBride in charge, the firm established a pro bono office that did free work on cases it deemed worthy, including winning compensation for survivors of the Rosewood racial massacre. Under McBride, the firm also became a major player in charitable causes through a foundation he established.

"He was always a promoter of equality," Sink said.

About the time McBride signed on at Holland & Knight, he met Richard Salem.

"We probably go back to the 1970s, and we’ve stayed close over the years," said Salem, a prominent disability lawyer from Tampa.

"Bill was a person of many characters: a leader, a builder and, more importantly, a father. He was a devoted father."

Since 2003, McBride had been a partner with the law firm of Barnett, Bolt, Kirkwood, Long & McBride in Tampa, where he continued to practice business law and remained involved in politics.

"Bill was doing well," Salem said. "He had some health issues, but this was unexpected, to say the least."

There will be a memorial service for McBride at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa on Friday.

McBride’s death is a significant loss for the city and for Florida, Salem said.

"He was a dedicated leader and son of the community," Salem said.

"His heart and soul was in the Tampa Bay area and Florida, in general. He was a real contributor, and that’s what we lost: a true contributor to the community," he said.

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