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When we needed it, Mr. James was the law

I hung up the phone and looked around the Tampa newsroom to tell someone that Bill James had died and realized no one who was there at the moment would know what it meant.

It had been that long. That much had changed.

Once, he was a man determined to clean up this town, a federal and state prosecutor who went after mobsters and corruption and those he believed were dirty, back when a new guard was challenging the old around here.

He was Hillsborough state attorney when I was a green reporter. Silver-haired and square-jawed, he looked like a judge out of a movie, or a 1950s sitcom dad, but with this odd combination of determination, morality and awkwardness. He seemed bigger than he was.

He played Santa at the office Christmas party, but looked uncomfortable holding a baby in his campaign brochure. He seemed more at home in a tie than one of those elect-me T-shirts. Politicking was not his priority.

He was a straight-and-narrow type, didn't smoke. Judy Hoyer, then a white collar crimes prosecutor and a friend of James' for decades, could not recall ever fixing him a drink at a social event at her home that he finished.

A lot of people, me included, called him Mr. James. Never Bill. They were still calling him Mr. James this week after the news of his death at the age of 75.

He was a name in this town back in the day of deep-running courthouse alliances and adversaries. Defense lawyer Barry Cohen faced off with him more than once. "We were fiercely adversarial," Cohen said. "Fiercely."

But time passes, and the world, even Tampa, changes.

"We never did become friends. We became friendly," Cohen said. "We had a mutual respect for each other."

"We ended up liking each other," he said.

Back in that first election, a bitter battle against then-state attorney E.J. Salcines, they ran as The James Gang in T-shirts that said "un-corruptible," like the old 7-Up Uncola ads. Bad blood would not begin to cover it.

Years later, word got out that popular Judge Harry Lee Coe — or Hangin' Harry, for his formidable, if often reversed, sentences — would challenge James for state attorney.

At political events, savvy candidates put themselves at the door for the best glad-handing action. Not James. "He would go to the farthest corner and eat a cookie and get a cup of coffee," Hoyer said. "He was probably the world's worst politician. He never wanted anything for himself. He put whoever did the work out front for credit."

Election night, he was no one but himself. Returns were late, so he went home to bed before it was over. The news would be the same the next day.

"It was just a terrible night," said Chris Hoyer, James' chief assistant. "I called him the next morning. I think I woke him up."

He never did take to private practice — maybe the bad guys weren't as clear from there — though his name remains part of the James Hoyer firm.

Even in Tampa, time passes. Coe is gone now, dead from suicide. Salcines is about to retire as an appeals court judge.

A legion of local lawyers in big firms, running agencies, presiding on the bench — were raised on his watch. Mr. James, part of how we got here, is gone.

When we needed it, Mr. James was the law 06/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 10:00am]
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