PALM HARBOR — Charles Rainey, who dominated the Pinellas County Commission for the better part of 29 years in the manner of an old-style political boss, died Wednesday (June 23, 2010) at Hospice House Brookside. He was 77 and had liver cancer.
In his era, Mr. Rainey was known as an unapologetic fighter for Pinellas County, particularly in the decades-long "water wars" that pitted him against Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
He also served as a longtime chairman of the Pinellas County Industry Council, traveling extensively to persuade manufacturers to move here. His advocacy helped bring businesses to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport area; and, with U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, he rescued 2,000 jobs at a former General Electric plant that became the Young-Rainey Star Center.
"He didn't mind who he offended if he offended them doing what he thought was right for Pinellas County — Republicans or Democrats or anybody," said Young, a longtime friend who named his son, Patrick Rainey Young, after Mr. Rainey.
A former two-term state legislator, Mr. Rainey was appointed to the commission in 1967 and elected the next year. His fellow commissioners elected him chairman nine times
Colleagues called him a kingpin, a power broker, a rainmaker.
"A lot of people chuckled about him being our godfather, but it was a joke," said former Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis.
At the same time, Marquis said, "If you got on the wrong side of an issue, he would bring great force to bear against you."
A man of regular habits, he took his coffee black, loved steak and seafood and refused to touch anything green.
Among other things, Mr. Rainey is credited with coming up with the money for countywide emergency services; getting a county waste-removal facility to replace city-owned landfills; and leading a 3-2 majority that picked up half the tab to build a domed stadium — which would later become Tropicana Field — with hotel taxes.
But it was during the prolonged water wars that Mr. Rainey really showed his mettle.
"Water, like air, belongs to everyone and should be proclaimed a state resource," Mr. Rainey declared in 1978.
He defended the well fields in northwest Hillsborough and Pasco counties, bought and paid for under his direction, which pumped millions of gallons of water a day into Pinellas County. When neighboring counties complained that the well fields were drawing down their lakes and wetlands, Mr. Rainey blamed the drought.
As chairman of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, he opposed any limit on the amount of water Pinellas could draw. When Hillsborough commissioner Ed Turanchik pressed for just such a restriction, Mr. Rainey gave him a new name: "Ed Tourniquet."
It was the kind of joke Mr. Rainey became known for, one that brought smiles even to opponents' faces. He called Honey Rand, a former Southwest Water Management District spokeswoman, the "best propagandist since Goebbels."
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Mr. Rainey, an only child, moved to St. Petersburg with his parents. He graduated from the Florida Military Academy in 1950 and studied at Emory University and the University of Florida. In 1953 he joined the Army, serving as chief cashier in the 8th Division and leaving as a sergeant in 1955.
An investment counselor, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1964 and 1966. In 1967, Gov. Claude Kirk, a fellow Republican, appointed Mr. Rainey to succeed a commissioner who had died. Mr. Rainey said he would serve two years and run again for the state House. But once on the commission, and after losing a bid for Congress in 1972, he decided to stay.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Rainey survived a tumultuous period in which three commission colleagues were jailed in a political corruption scandal.
He was a rainmaker at home, too. "You almost didn't dare tell him that you like something," said his daughter, Elizabeth Law. If you did, he would buy it for you in bulk.
He was married and divorced twice, each marriage lasting about 20 years, his family said.
Mr. Rainey stepped down in the middle of his term in 1996, citing health reasons. The water wars ended in 1998 with the formation of Tampa Bay Water.