Bill McBride, the Florida Democrat who came out of nowhere to defeat Janet Reno for the party's 2002 gubernatorial nomination but then lost to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, has died at the age of 67, his wife said Sunday.
McBride suffered a heart attack Saturday while visiting with family in Mount Airy, N.C., said Alex Sink, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, losing to now-Gov. Rick Scott.
McBride had suffered from heart problems for many years but, Sink said, "this was very sudden and unexpected."
A Tampa attorney, McBride captured his party's gubernatorial nomination against the better-known Reno, who was U.S. attorney general under President Bill Clinton.
McBride had been managing partner at the prestigious Holland & Knight law firm before unsuccessfully trying to deny Bush a second term.
Bush tweeted his condolences, "Thoughts and prayers are with Alex and Bill's entire family."
Florida Democrats remembered McBride as a party advocate and public servant. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called McBride "larger than life."
"He was one of the great business, legal and political leaders of Florida, and he is a friend that many of us will miss," Nelson said.
Sink said McBride's legacy as an advocate for civil rights outshines his brief political career.
"He was always a promoter of equality," Sink said, adding that her husband championed survivors of the Rosewood racial massacre, pro bono legal work and gay rights.
"He was always promoting more minorities in the law," she said.
McBride left his legal career to run for office to challenge Bush's education policy, Sink said. He won the early endorsement of the state teachers union, followed by that of the state AFL-CIO.
"He just believed our state was going in the wrong direction under Jeb Bush," she said. "He ran a campaign based on supporting public education, supporting teachers and investing more money in education - and he was right."
Former state Sen. Tom Rossin, who was McBride's 2002 running mate, said the contest against Reno was "a very close race" but he was able to prevail because people thought so highly of him.
"He was a real Floridian, felt very strongly about the state and its future and its ability to deal with the challenges we have," Rossin said.
After the fall election loss, McBride joined a small Tampa law firm as a partner. Barnett, Bolt, Kirkwood, Long & McBride specializes in corporate, tax and real estate law.
Sink, a former state chief financial officer, said she often sought advice from McBride during her campaign against Scott, a Republican; she narrowly lost. The couple, who married in 1987 and have a son and a daughter, made their home in Thonotosassa, outside Tampa.
"Bill McBride was a great lawyer, a devoted public servant, a veteran and a talented leader," Scott said in a statement, adding, "Florida is no doubt a better place because people like Bill McBride commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of others."
McBride, who charmed supporters with his folksy drawl, grew up in Leesburg, in central Florida. He entered the University of Florida on a football scholarship but gave it up because of a knee injury. He temporarily dropped out of law school to volunteer with the Marines in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star.
Former state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Tampa Democrat who supported McBride's campaign, said McBride was a natural campaigner who managed to work well with Democrats and Republicans. He contributed to a wide range of causes in the Tampa community, Henriquez said.
"He was one of those guys who'd put his arms around you and give you a bear hug and make you feel good," he added.
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