March 23, 2013

Hundreds gather for former state senator Larcenia Bullard’s funeral

Hundreds gathered to pay their respect at the funeral service for former state senator Larcenia Bullard Saturday morning at the South Dade Cultural Arts Center in Miami.

Hundreds gathered to pay their respect at the funeral service for former state senator Larcenia Bullard Saturday morning at the South Dade Cultural Arts Center in Miami.

Bullard was the rarest of politicians in the Florida Capitol: She seemed to make everyone happy and had no apparent enemies.

Bullard was the lady with the big bear hugs, the woman from Miami who made you feel special. She was funny. Often on purpose. Sometimes not.

Bullard died in the town of her birth — Allendale, S.C. — while on vacation with her husband, former state Rep. Edward Bullard, said her son and successor, Sen. Dwight Bullard. She felt ill Saturday morning and went to the emergency room, he said, where she died. She was 65.

Larcenia Bullard, a Democrat, struggled with her health during her final years in the Legislature, which she left in 2012 due to term limits. Her son won the subsequent election for her seat, whose district stretches from Miami to Key West.

“She lived to see her son take her place in the Florida Senate. That meant so much to her. It was special,” Sen. Jack Latvala said.

The St. Petersburg Republican carried one of Bullard’s bills, designating Key West’s Western Union schooner as the state’s flagship, when she was ill during the 2011 lawmaking session.

After that, Bullard’s health seemed to improve, friends said. Latvala said she appeared to be in great spirits on the opening day of this year’s legislative session on March 5. Last Tuesday, she appeared in a Senate video featured in Tallahassee’s annual Florida Press Skits in which she kicked off a Harlem Shake dance on the Senate floor.

“Larcenia Bullard was a personality — always happy, a joyful person, someone who gave everybody a great big bear hug. It didn’t matter who you were,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens. “When she came on the Senate floor and hugged everybody, she still made you feel so special, like she was there for you.”

Bullard was sometimes unintentionally funny.

During a 2009 Senate committee discussion about making bestiality a crime, Bullard cracked up everyone in the room, and received national TV attention, when she was tripped up by the mention of the phrase “animal husbandry.”

“People are taking these animals as their husbands? What’s husbandry?” she asked. A few laughs ensued. And soon Bullard rolled along with it.

Bullard was usually a reliable Democratic vote, but she could also be unpredictable. Her fellow Democrats struggled, at times, to keep her on board. In 2005, during the nationally watched Terri Schiavo euthanasia case, Democrats battled to keep her from backing a Republican bill to keep the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube inserted. Bullard ultimately voted against the bill.

“Let Terri Schiavo die with dignity,” she said.

Bullard, a former schoolteacher, first served in the state House from 1992 to 2000, and then the state Senate from 2002 to 2012.

She was born Larcenia Jean Dunbar on July 21, 1947. A graduate of Antioch College in Ohio, she moved to Richmond Heights from Philadelphia in the early 1980s. She taught first grade before running for the Florida House in 1990.

“I have aspired to enter the political arena since being a teenager working on campaigns,” she told The Miami Herald at the time.

Bullard raised less money than other candidates. Yet she made it into the Democratic primary runoff, but lost to Daryl Jones.

Two years later, after earning a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University, Bullard again ran for the seat after Jones jumped to the Senate. She campaigned to improve public education.

Her priority abruptly changed a week before the primary, when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade. The storm blew away much of Bullard’s home, forcing the family to move in with friends in North Dade. The political campaign turned into an effort to help rebuild.

This time, Bullard won.

When she was term-limited out of the House in 2000, she managed the campaign for her husband, Edward, to succeed her.

In 2002, Bullard ran for the Senate. Again, she was outraised. Again, she won.

Her Senate biography said she was baptized Baptist but was a practicing Episcopalian. She liked pinochle, traveling and collecting butterfly-shaped jewelry and trinkets, though she lost much of her collection to Hurricane Andrew, Dwight Bullard said.

Condolences streamed in from politicians who summed up the life, and the loss, of Bullard.

“Larcenia had the biggest heart in the Senate,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Every hard fight in committee or tough debate on the Senate floor always ended with her warmly embracing those with whom she disagreed and assuring them of her love.”

“She represented the families of South Florida with passion and integrity,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to those close to her and the rest of Florida as we honor a woman who put her constituents first.”

Though Bullard’s health had been poor, her loss was crushing to many of those who were close to her, including longtime Miami lobbyist Bob Levy, who said he knew her for almost 30 years.

Two weeks ago, Levy said he had dinner with Bullard in Tallahassee.

“She had a heart of gold,” he said. “All of us have hysterical Larcenia stories. But she cared deeply about the people she represented and no one ever got that — why she always got opponents — and why she always blew them away.”

In addition to husband Edward and son Dwight, Bullard is survived by son Vincent Brooker of Philadelphia, daughter Edwina Simms of Orlando, and grandchildren Vinicia, Myles, Mylicia and Gavin Jr.

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