TAMPA — Garry Smith, a longtime Democratic Party activist who managed Gov. Bob Graham’s come-from-nowhere statewide victory in 1978 and stayed on as Graham’s chief of staff for two terms, has died.
The Blount & Curry Funeral Home MacDill Chapel, which is handling arrangements, declined to release details late Wednesday, but friends and political associates confirmed his death.
Smith was childhood friends with former Tampa mayor Dick Greco and had been a key supporter since Greco’s first election to that office in 1967.
“He was the type of guy that was always there for anybody that needed him. You could count on him 100 percent,” said Greco, who would serve two terms as mayor, retire to the private sector for two decades, then win two more terms in the 1990s. “We’re going to miss him. When he said something or shook hands with you, that was the end of it – you could count on it with your life.”
Smith also headed then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in Louisiana in 1976, helping Carter to sweep the South and narrowly unseat Gerald Ford.
That success in the national campaign caught the eye of Graham, an unknown state senator from Miami who faced a crowded primary with seven Democratic candidates.
“I asked some people who they thought I should be talking to, and his name came up,” along with the success in Louisiana, Graham said. “He signed on, and 18 months later, I got elected. He was a driving force through that whole process.”
Smith is survived by his wife of 59 years, Mavis Smith. In 2005, the couple celebrated their 50th anniversary with a 1950s-themed party for 150 guests at Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club.
He is also survived by four daughters: Julie Myers, Cathy Brockmeier, Lori Branham and Sheri Bryan.
Smith grew up in Seminole Heights and graduated from Hillsborough High School in 1951. After serving in the Navy, Smith formed a consulting business in Tampa and became involved in Democratic politics.
He was active in Tampa in the Model Cities urban renewal project of the 1960s, which brought millions in federal dollars to Tampa to improve Ybor City, the Cuscaden Park area and others in addition to paying for school programs and even a sewage treatment operation credited with turning around the quality of Tampa Bay.
“Politically, Garry Smith was very strong,” said George Levy, a Tampa businessman who knew Smith from the early Greco campaigns. “He’s been very, very active in the political scene and was very well-respected.”
He was also devoted to his family, Graham said. The former governor recently visited Smith at his Tampa condominium.
“Garry has just been a wonderful friend, along with Mavis and his daughters,” said Graham. “When I was visiting, I observed how much his daughters were caring for him, and as the father of four daughters myself, I said, ‘I hope if I find myself in need, that they’ll be as attentive as yours are.’ It was a very loving family.”
Details of services were not available late Wednesday.