More than four decades ago, a friend pressed C.C. "Doc" Dockery to run for the Polk County School Board, brushing off Dockery's insistence that he didn't particularly want the job.
"Don't worry, you won't win. No chance," the fellow assured him.
That's because Dockery was a Republican, and Republicans were irrelevant and all but nonexistent in Polk County — and most of Florida — at the time.
The goal was merely to start building an alternative to the Democrats, but Dockery's dad in North Carolina was horrified to learn that his son joined the GOP in the late 1960s.
"To him, Republicans were the devil incarnate. He was sure they would take away his V.A. pension,'' Dockery, 79, recounted at his Lakeland home.
Over the coming decades, starting at a Lakeland Holiday Inn where he handed gubernatorial candidate Claude Kirk a $50 campaign donation he had struggled to save up, Dockery emerged as one of the pioneers who helped build the Florida GOP into a dominant force.
"Doc was one of the seminal financial pillars of the party in the early going, when it was easier and cheaper to have that role than it is today," said veteran Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich. "He is also a man of wide experience and was a valuable adviser on business issues. And he is a fundamentally nice man."
But it says a lot about the evolution of the GOP that today Dockery is registered under "no party affiliation" and no longer feels comfortable or especially welcome in the party he helped build. He's hardly alone in thinking the party has lost its way.
"Look at what happened in the presidential primary. It was embarrassing. ... It was very difficult to sit there and think this is my party and this is what I'm a part of when some of these folks were talking — like the Texas governor (Rick Perry), like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum — pretty much all of them except (Jon) Huntsman," said Dockery, a top supporter of then-longshot Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Martinez in the 1980s, who in the 1990s helped lead the "Eight is Enough" campaign for legislative term limits.
"And this thing about 47 percent? We want to exclude 47 percent of the people who are citizens and eligible to vote in this country? (Mitt) Romney was representing much of the thought of the Republican Party when he said that, and I don't think that way," said Dockery, who changed his party registration about two years ago but said he will switch back to the GOP if he wants to weigh in on a primary.
"I saw us becoming more and more of a closed party and people accusing others of being RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). When I was very active in Polk County Republican politics, we had what (Ronald) Reagan would call a big tent. Hell, we're down to a teepee now. Folks aren't welcome unless they can pass a litmus test on a lot of issues. That's got to change if the Republican Party ever hopes to win another presidential election."
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Truth be told, Dockery's disenchantment is probably more complex and personal than tea party politics or his disgust with the Iraq war.
Since seeing the train system in Europe, he has had a vision and passion for high-speed rail in Florida. He spent $3 million of his own money to convince voters in 2000 to mandate high-speed rail in Florida, only to have longtime friend Jeb Bush lead an effort to repeal that constitutional amendment. (He voted for Barack Obama in 2012 mainly because of the president's support for high-speed rail.)
He also saw his wife of 23 years, former state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, snubbed and marginalized by Republican legislative leaders as she pushed for ethics reforms that have since become a top legislative priority.
"While I am disappointed that Doc has registered as an NPA, I admire him and consider him a friend. He was a great supporter of mine, and I have fond memories of my dealings with him," said former Gov. Bush, who used to sleep at Dockery's home and fly around Florida on Dockery's twin-engine plane while campaigning for his father's presidential campaign in 1992.
Dockery grew up on a North Carolina tobacco farm, and back when he was struggling to get by, he nearly went to work for mob boss Santo Trafficante as an escort for wealthy women. He decided against that when he learned that people who work for Trafficante never have the option to stop working for him. Dockery went on to become a multimillionaire in the workers' compensation and reinsurance business.
He has served on various appointed boards but never was elected to office.
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Dockery has forgotten more about politics in Florida than most top Republican leaders today have ever known, so we stopped by his home the other day for a chat.
On former Gov. "Bobby" Martinez: "Early on he sent out a mailer saying 'Vote for Bobby Martinez.' I caught all sorts of hell from people in Polk County: 'We're not going to elect a Bobby.' I told him about it and said I think you better switch your nickname to Bob, and he did."
On his ideology: "I consider myself a moderate to conservative Republican. And I liked the Bush 2 line about being a compassionate conservative. But I've got a lot of Democratic friends, and I've donated to Democrats."
On how he disagreed with wife Paula in her decision to become one of a handful of Republican leaders to endorse Rick Scott for governor two years ago after she dropped out of the GOP primary: "There's something wrong when a company you've run and you're the CEO of is fined over a billion dollars for Medicare fraud. That doesn't happen if, as we say in North Carolina, you're as clean as a hound's tooth."
He said Gov. Scott "lied" to his wife, promising to support high-speed rail in Florida, but wound up rejecting $2.4 billion from the Obama administration: "I thought it was a done deal. How could you not do it? We had the money, all but $200 million, and we were talking with members of the eight consortiums that were putting it together — worldwide teams. I talked to three of them, and the consultants talked to all of them, and they assured me that they would pick up the $200 million gap. … I was shocked. How could you turn that down?"
Has he made up with Jeb Bush? "Yeah, I guess so. At one time it got pretty rough but it wasn't a lasting thing. I said some things I shouldn't have said, and he said some things he shouldn't have said, but it was never like I was never going to speak to him anymore. One of the things that really bothered me about the Republican Party and Jeb was that I'd been pretty generous to Republican politicians and the party. And when I found out the party had transferred I think it was like $200,000 or $300,000 to Jeb's committee to reverse the high-speed-rail amendment, that really, really hurt. I felt like Jeb was utilizing money that I had given to defeat something that was very personal to me."
On meeting every president since Nixon, except for Bill Clinton:
"Jeb's daddy is probably the most wonderful person I ever met politically other than Paula. He was a real gentleman. You couldn't ask to be around a nicer person — unassuming, unpretentious, and I'm real happy with the relationship I had with him."
On the 2014 Florida governor's race: "Charlie Crist may have a chance at beating the incumbent unless Scott is successful in buying votes this time with taxpayer money. He bought them last time using his own money, but it's clear to me that he's using taxpayer money now through the budget to try and buy votes from a larger group of voters. … Alex Sink is a good person. I've served on the board of TaxWatch with her, and she's smart, she really is, but she's not as good a campaigner as Charlie is."
What about those who say Crist is a shallow, principle-free turncoat? "I've known Charlie since he was an aide to (Sen. Connie Mack in the 1980s), and to me Charlie hasn't really changed. He's the same man I've known all along, and he might just be able to convince enough Democrats to nominate him. I don't see anyone else who has enough name recognition to put up a good fight against Scott."
On his successful term limits initiative: "The underlying reason for it was to break the stranglehold of Democrats in control of the Legislature in Florida. … As long as they were the incumbents, we didn't see any possibility of Republicans ever gaining control of either house of the Legislature. … If I had it to do over again knowing the consequences, I would say 'no' to term limits. The consequences are that we've entrenched Republicans now."
Who would he like to see for president in 2016? "Colin Powell."
How about Jeb Bush? "I don't think Jeb will run. I think Jeb's family is more important to him than being president. Would I vote for him? Probably."
Dockery's autobiography can be read online at countryboydoc.com. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: C.C. "Doc" Dockery served in Korea. A earlier version of this story misstated the conflict of which he is a veteran.