TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Commissioner James "Big Jim" Selvey — an oversized man known for gregariousness, Southern witticisms and questionable ethical decisions — died suddenly Sunday afternoon. He was 77.
Mr. Selvey, a Tampa native who worked in farming and real estate, served on the commission from 1985 to 1992. He was in good health, family members said, but came home to Brandon early from a grandson's Boy Scout camping trip Wednesday, complaining he didn't feel well.
Mr. Selvey was hospitalized Saturday morning with chest pains, and thought he was having a heart attack. Instead, doctors at Tampa General Hospital diagnosed late-stage acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow.
"It was a shock," said Jim Selvey, 36, Mr. Selvey's son. "He was a big man, a compassionate man, and a very fair man. … He was my best friend."
Born Dec. 9, 1936, Mr. Selvey got a bachelor's degree in industrial management from Auburn University and worked in sales across the South and Midwest before returning to Hillsborough in 1975. He started a farming career in Ruskin, thanks in part to the influential Leisey family.
In 1984, Mr. Selvey ran for County Commission, then a Democratic stronghold. Mr. Selvey was the first Republican to win a seat on the Hillsborough commission in years and was the lone GOP member during his tenure.
Mr. Selvey's nickname was owed to his size — he was 6 feet 5 and about 280 pounds — but it also aptly described his personality, said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who had served on the County Commission with him.
"In today's world, when everyone takes politics so personally, Jim was the opposite of that," Iorio said Monday. "No matter how much he disagreed with you, at the end he would come by and give you a big bear hug."
Revered by peers, Mr. Selvey made a few decisions that drew criticism from state officials.
In 1989, Mr. Selvey was the subject of a state ethics commission investigation after a Times article revealed he had borrowed more than $300,000 from the Leisey family — longtime south Hillsborough landowners whose business interests included farming and mining — but failed to list the debts on his financial disclosure forms. He made votes as commissioner that financially benefited Leisey businesses.
The ethics commission ultimately cleared Mr. Selvey of wrongdoing, but former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth cited the situation as one that should be illegal, and pushed for legislative changes.
"My political base is from the agricultural community," Mr. Selvey told the Times. "I don't try to hide it."
In 1990, Mr. Selvey angered some colleagues with a speech in which he blamed communist influences among local environmentalists and the news media, in particular the Times, for hurting the region's economy.
To Iorio, though, Mr. Selvey's years of service and affable demeanor overshadowed those controversies and others. "I just choose to remember him as an extremely likable and capable colleague who worked very hard for his district, particularly on agricultural issues," she said.
After leaving office in 1992 due to term limits, Mr. Selvey ran unsuccessfully for commission again in 1994, and for Hillsborough County tax collector in 1998, losing to current Tax Collector Doug Belden. "He was an absolute gentleman," Belden said. "He never said a negative thing about me on the campaign. … He was a gentle giant."
In his later years, Mr. Selvey worked in real estate and served as president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors.
Mr. Selvey maintained good spirits even as his health worsened last week, his son said, joking "he must finally be getting old." As the seriousness of his condition became clear, Mr. Selvey wanted to talk about only one thing from his hospital bed: his 14-year-old grandson's Eagle Scout project.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.