Bill McBride, Florida gubernatorial candidate defeated by Jeb Bush in 2002, dies at 67

Bill McBride, a gregarious Tampa lawyer with a common touch whose dream of becoming Florida’s governor ended in a one-sided 2002 loss to Jeb Bush, died Saturday. He was 67.

McBride, the husband of Alex Sink, the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor, suffered a heart attack while on a holiday trip to North Carolina. Along with the couple’s son Bert, daughter Lexi and other family members, they had gathered for Christmas in Sink’s hometown of Mount Airy, N.C.

Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta newspaper in Tampa and a family friend, said McBride was found unconscious after he excused himself from a game of cards.

“They had gone up to North Carolina to visit her side of the family. They had a perfectly great trip, ate at a restaurant that had great pork chops, and in the evening were playing gin rummy. Bill got up and left and didn’t come back,” Manteiga said.

Manteiga said details on services would be forthcoming.  

“Bill’s most outstanding quality is that he is the most fantastic father in the world,” said Bob Bolt, McBride’s law partner and a close friend since they were high school football rivals. “. . . He always made sure he got home at night to see his kids.”

Bolt said McBride played competitive handball as recently as last week. He played at the Harbour Island Athletic Club & Spa, where in 2003 he collapsed while working out on a treadmill.

McBride underwent an angioplasty, in which doctors inserted a stent into a closed coronary artery to reopen it.

A lover of baseball, football, fishing and anything involving his alma mater, the University of Florida, McBride was born on May 10, 1945.

He was an imposing figure, at six feet three and well over 200 pounds, but had a wide, easy grin and a folksy demeanor.

Despite his success and wealth in the corporate world, McBride enjoyed wearing an old gray sweatshirt, eating cheeseburgers and slaw dogs, and drinking a glass of bourbon. He remained steadfastly proud of his small-town roots in 1950s Leesburg, north of Orlando.

The son of a TV repairman, he played fullback and linebacker in high school. At UF,

a knee injury derailed his football career, but he followed a well-worn path to politics as a member of Blue Key and as president of a leading campus fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega.

After a year of law school at UF, McBride joined the Marines, rose to the rank of captain and received the Bronze Star with a Combat V for valor for service during the Vietnam War.

He became a leader in such organizations as United Way and the Florida Holocaust Museum, was a sought-after fund-raiser for Democratic candidates and was managing partner of Holland & Knight, which for many years was the state’s largest law firm, where his mentor was Chesterfield Smith, a former American Bar Association president.

After a decade in charge of Holland & Knight’s global operations, spanning six countries, he joined the Tampa law firm of Barnett, Bolt, Kirkwood, Long & McBride. He was a senior partner at the time of his death.

Political leaders throughout Florida paid tribute to McBride on Sunday.

Gov. Rick Scott, who defeated Alex Sink in 2010, said: “Bill McBride was a great lawyer, a devoted public servant, a veteran and a talented leader .. . Florida is no doubt a better place because people like Bill McBride commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of others.”

On Twitter, Jeb Bush said: “Thoughts and prayers are with Alex and Bill’s entire family.”

“Bill McBride was larger than life,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement. “He was one of the great business, legal and political leaders of Florida, and he is a friend that many of us will miss.”

Democratic political strategist Steve Schale said a planned cup of coffee with McBride at his Tampa law office two weeks ago turned into a two-hour conversation — mostly not about politics. Schale said McBride spoke proudly of his son Bert, who is studying to be a lawyer, and daughter Lexi’s recent completion of her third year of medical school.

“He was just beaming. He was in a good mood, as always,” Schale recalled.

McBride and Sink lived in an elegant home with a large wraparound porch on 30 acres overlooking Lake Thonotosassa east of Tampa. But he drove a Ford pickup with more than 150,000 miles on it and liked to talk about the common sense he got from ordinary people at the nearby Circle K convenience store.

“He could walk into an orange grove and start singing with the Haitian pickers, then go have meat loaf with the guys at the Flying J Truck Stop, and then he could put on a suit, zip to Tally in his MG, and have all the suaveness and smoothness of a guy from Harvard,” longtime friend Steve Brewer told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002.

But McBride proved no match for the formidable Bush in the 2002 gubernatorial race. He had never before run for office, and it showed, as he would often note in a self-deprecating way. And he relied — excessively, critics said — on teachers’ union leaders to make key campaign decisions.  

McBride defeated former Miami-Dade State Attorney and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the Democratic primary to earn the matchup with Bush, who defeated McBride by 13 points to win a second term.

The Bush-McBride campaign’s most memorable moment came during a live TV debate at the University of Central Florida. Under intense questioning by debate moderator Tim Russert of NBC, McBride was vague and unconvincing when pressed to say where he would find the billions of dollars to pay for a constitutional amendment requiring smaller class sizes.

McBride supported the class-size amendment, Bush opposed it, but voters nevertheless approved it that November.

After his crushing loss, McBride phoned his friend Manteiga, the newspaper publisher.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry I let you down,’ ” Manteiga said. “I’ve never heard another politician say that.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report.