Meet Bill McBride, a man who would be governor. The personable, high-achieving, 56-year-old attorney who has never held public office is one of a half dozen Democrats vying to be the party’s choice to take on Jeb Bush in 2002.
The serious winnowing process is yet ahead.
In some parts of Florida, he may be the least known of the seven. Even here in the Tampa Bay area, his home base, he’s forced to share the early media spotlight — and fund-raising and endorsements — with another aspirant, Congressman Jim Davis.
In front of a hard-core political crowd, he can still seem charisma challenged. Moreover, conventional wisdom accords former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno the overall favorite’s role in a winner-take-all primary with no run-off.
Having said that — as well as acknowledging that conventional wisdom is always more conventional than wise — no one in the know is dismissing his chances.
“Bill McBride is smart, likeable, a good listener and just bulldog tenacious in what he wants to accomplish. I think he’ll be very competitive,” assessed former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who has endorsed McBride’s candidacy. “He’ll be able to raise money; he’s got a fantastic network. And he’s a fresh face, which is good for the party. Everything he’s done in life has prepared him well for this, and he has a marvelous story to tell.”
McBride’s is an intriguing, hybrid candidacy.
A populist, a patriot, a profit-and-loss guy who believes in an activist role for government. And still a Little League coach.He grew up in Leesburg, Fla., the son of a TV repairman. As a kid, he picked oranges and sold watermelons door-to-door. Went to Leesburg High, where he was student body president and runner-up Florida Scholar-Athlete of the Year as an honor student/fullback-linebacker. Was recruited to the University of Florida in the same class as Steve Spurrier. Blew out a knee and became the “Best player who never played for me,” according to head coach Ray Graves.
After college, he rejected additional student deferments, joined the Marines, served in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star. His reasoning was simple, but its impact profound.
“It was only by accident of birth that I was born in this country,” reasoned McBride, “and not in, say, Bangladesh. That makes me pretty lucky. I felt it was my obligation to serve. I’m glad I did.”
And as the only college graduate in his Marine company, McBride eventually saw the war through the prism of a socio-economically-skewed America. “Lower middle class to poor kids were being asked to die for their country, but had the least stake in what was going on,” figured McBride. “An experience like that shows the awesome power of government. Making decisions that change people’s lives.”
Captain McBride then looked to become Counselor McBride. He returned to Gainesville, entered UF School of Law and graduated with honors and as a member of the Law Review.
Over time, he would become a name familiar to many in legal, political and civic circles, from Tampa to Tallahassee and beyond. His chairmanships range from the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Hillsborough County. He’s a member of the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame. He has several dens’ worth of testimonial plaques, including awards from the National Council of Christians and Jews and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee.
In an election that could likely turn on education, the environment, ever mounting black alienation and Bush Brothers’ payback, McBride could be well positioned.
It’s also a given that his legal and business connections should enable him to raise money nationwide. In fact, Alex Sink, his wife and former state head of NationsBank, is a fund-raising force in her own right.
With bona fides in business, the military and football, McBride’s quite comfortable in a corporate suite, a military base or the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. But when it comes to core ideology, no one in the field outflanks him on the left. That, of course, could be a ruinous niche nationally, but not statewide.
He’s unabashedly supportive of public schools and teachers and activist on behalf of the environment and minority inclusion. He sees the value in unions and the good in affirmative action. He believes gays and lesbians should enjoy the same legal rights and benefits as married couples. He is, as he has said, a “proud and unapologetic Democrat.”
“Almost all of my positions are from the premise that people need a helping hand,” explained McBride. “I’m not muddling about in the middle on that.”
No more than he muddled around at the top of Holland & Knight, where he served as managing partner from 1992 until last month, when he went on a non-paid leave of absence. He expects to resign from the firm “shortly” and opened a campaign account last week.
Under his hard-charging leadership, the law firm expanded into one of the largest in the country and among the top 20 in the world. Two years ago he was a keynote speaker at the White House on diversity and pro bono legal work.
“Bill McBride’s very bright, a quick study and a forceful personality,” said John Belohlavek, political consultant and chairman of the history department at the University of South Florida. “You’d have to be to lead that crowd.
“In terms of his persona, I think he’s electable,” added Belohlavek. “He’s large and imposing. Has a military and business background. He’s a Florida guy who understands economic issues and growth development. I think he can make the case for government being a positive force in improving the quality of people’s lives.”
And nothing ranks higher than education on McBride’s Florida agenda.
He calls Gov. Bush’s approach “mean spirited.””The A+ plan is just testing,” noted McBride. “He gives bad programs a good name and then tries selling it. ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ take money out of public schools. To suggest that any private school is better than a public school is disgraceful