Charles Whitehead, who served as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party during its years of power in the 1980s and returned a decade later to revive a broke and dispirited party, died Saturday.
Whitehead turned 83 two weeks ago and died of natural causes at his home in Panama City, said his son-in-law, Screven Watson, a Tallahassee political strategist and former executive director of the party.
The burly and good-natured Whitehead was a party leader at a time when Democrats were often torn apart by infighting. Bob Graham was a popular two-term governor, and Democrats controlled the Legislature and most statewide offices as the national party took a beating in three consecutive presidential elections from 1980 to 1988.
“He wasn’t just a Democrat or a Republican. He was a Floridian — Mr. Integrity,’’ said former four-term state attorney general Bob Butterworth, who sought Whitehead’s advice in his first statewide race in 1986. “He considered his role as party chairman to be a public service. He did it with dignity, grace and professionalism and he made you feel good to be in public service.’’
A self-described North Florida liberal, Whitehead helped deliver a Florida straw ballot victory for little-known Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign and was state party chairman throughout the 1980s. Democrats stumbled badly in 1986 when Republican Bob Martinez, a former Tampa mayor, won the governor’s mansion in part because Democrats failed to unify behind their nominee, state Rep. Steve Pajcic of Jacksonville.
Reflecting on those years in a 2004 interview, Whitehead said the Democrats’ downfall in Florida was accelerated by the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the year Whitehead took over the state party reins.
“Everyone he touched in Florida got elected, and it started to snowball. He built the Republican Party in Florida,” Whitehead told the Sun Sentinel. “From Pensacola to Jacksonville, that’s where he really killed us. Those are strong military areas and he was strong on the military.”
With Reagan in the White House, dozens of conservative Democratic politicians in North Florida jumped ship to the GOP, and Democrats soon became the minority party at the state level.
After stepping down in 1988, Whitehead returned in 1999 and replaced Mitch Ceasar, who held the job for 10 months but struggled to raise money.
Whitehead was a star tailback at Port St. Joe High School. He then went to the University of Miami on a football scholarship.
He was a radar operator in the Korean War.
He was a long-time Ford dealer in Panama City, and for part of his time as chairman, his Republican counterpart was Tommy Thomas, who sold Chevrolets across the street. The power-brokers worked in concert to tweak state laws to benefit car dealers at the expense of manufacturers.
The two men were rivals in politics and in car showrooms, but were friends who enjoyed hunting and playing poker together.
“They wouldn’t dare miss their regular poker games,” recalled Lawrence Tybee, a friend and former president of Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.
Allison Tant, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said Whitehead “never failed to be there when his party or state needed him. For decades, Charlie was a happy warrior, always working for a better, more just Florida.”
The party gives out an annual Charles Whitehead Legacy Award to a non-elected Democrat, and the last winner was Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, honored posthumously in 2013.
Whitehead had not been visible in statewide politics for more than a decade, but he endorsed Charlie Crist as an independent U.S. Senate candidate in 2010.
Whitehead is survived by Betty Feagle, his companion for more than 30 years. Watson said they met at a political event, naturally, a Panhandle fundraiser for Doyle Conner, who was the state agriculture commissioner for three decades.
Times correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com.