Local Obituaries

Richard Stone, first Jewish senator to represent Florida since Civil War, dies at 90

Former U.S. Sen. Richard Stone of Florida during his nomination hearing to become Ambassador at Large for Central America before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 20, 1983, on Capitol Hill. Stone died Sunday at the age of 90.
Former U.S. Sen. Richard Stone of Florida during his nomination hearing to become Ambassador at Large for Central America before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 20, 1983, on Capitol Hill. Stone died Sunday at the age of 90. AP

The first Jewish U.S. senator to represent Florida since the Civil War died Sunday. Richard Stone, whose influence spread from the hotels of Miami Beach to the U.S. Senate, was 90.

Stone, a Democrat, served as Miami city attorney from 1966-67, as Florida state senator from 1967-70 and as Florida’s secretary of state until 1974. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1975 to 1980.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Stone and his family moved to Miami Beach when he was a young child. Stone grew up in what is known today as The Blackstone on Washington Avenue. The 13-story hotel was built by his father and grandfather in 1929 after his grandfather visited Miami Beach, but was turned away from local hotels because he was Jewish, said Stone’s youngest child, Elliot Stone, 56.

Richard Stone grew up in the hotel, handing out keys and carrying luggage, according to a 1980 Miami Herald article. That’s how he learned about keeping customers happy.

“They built the hotel not just for Jews, simply to be a hotel for everybody,” Elliot Stone said.

His father’s spirit for public service started at a young age, Elliot Stone said, recalling a story about his father as a determined Cub Scout collecting signatures for a petition to beautify his neighborhood.

“It was a lifetime of public service especially [not just] the South Florida community, but all of Florida,” Elliot Stone said.

Richard Stone attended Dade County Public Schools until he completed his high school education at Georgia Military College. He attended Harvard College and Columbia Law School before returning to Florida. He was admitted into the Florida Bar in 1955 and married his late wife Marlene Singer two years later.

During his law career, he opened a law firm, Stone and Bittel, with his friend Jordan Bittel, and served as Miami city attorney. But he resigned from his position to pursue a new Florida state Senate seat. In 1970, he was elected Florida’s secretary of state.

His daughter Amelia Stone, 58, said the family’s time in Tallahassee marked a turning point in her father’s career. She said she remembers her parents sat down with each of her siblings to ask if they were OK with their dad running for U.S. Senate. For her and her siblings, much of their childhood was spent with their father on the campaign trail.

“We all [felt] very fortunate because we were included in something unusual,” Amelia Stone said.

Nancy Poznansky, Stone’s older daughter, 60, said she remembers the family joining him at a plethora of events during his political career.

“I would say the family was a pretty good team. My mother and father were a phenomenal team,” Poznansky said. “I think he did everything with such integrity. You couldn’t help but want to be a part of what he was doing, including his career.”

During his political career, Stone’s achievements included promoting the cleanup of the Miami River, co-sponsoring the Taiwan Relations Act and pushing for Florida’s sunshine laws, which make public records available to the public. According to a 1971 New York Times article, then-Florida Secretary of State Stone was so passionate about transparency he removed all of the inner doors from his office.

Although Stone was a Democrat, two Republican presidents appointed him to ambassadorial posts. President Ronald Reagan appointed Stone as the at-large ambassador to Central America in 1983. President George H.W. Bush appointed Stone as ambassador to Denmark in 1991.

Golda Meir 1977.jpg
Richard Stone with former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir in 1977. The visit came on the heels of Menachem Begin’s election as Israel’s new prime minister, and was a precursor to the 1978 Camp David Accords. Stone was a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Elliot Stone

Stone lost his re-election bid for the U.S. Senate in 1980. Some attributed the loss to his flip-flopping on two key issues: transferring control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama and the Labor Law Reform Act, which was heavily backed by unions. In 1978, Stone originally said he would not vote on the reform bill itself but would vote “yes” for cloture, which would end the debate and begin a vote. When it came down to it less than a month later, Stone voted “no” and the bill died. Also, he had said he wouldn’t vote for the Panama Canal treaties, but then he did.

Van Jones, 76, who served as Stone’s executive assistant at the time, said Stone’s indecision on the two issues is what cost him the election.

“Had it not been those two issues, he would’ve remained senator,” Jones said.

Stone was known for an “unpredictable” voting record, sometimes siding with Republicans. He ruffled feathers by disagreeing with then-President Jimmy Carter and fighting against increased congressional salaries, going as far as to return nearly $20,000 he received, the Herald reported.

“I’m a Democrat,” Stone told the Herald in 1980. “When I think the other party is right, it’s my duty to vote for what I think is right.”

Jones said Stone’s moral character was unwavering.

“He was a terrific person,” Jones said. “I enjoyed working with him.”

Robert McKnight, a former state representative who served during Stone’s time as secretary of state, said Stone would definitely not match the political discourse he sees today.

“Today, there’s a lot of back biting, there’s a lot of mean spirit,” McKnight said. “That wasn’t Stone.”

Richard Stone is survived by his adult children Elliot Stone, Amelia Stone and Nancy Poznansky and five grandchildren. Funeral services will be held Wednesday in Arlington, Virginia.

In an earlier version of this article, one of the references to Richard Stone used the wrong first name.