After devastating loss, Alex Sink pauses her political journey

She had hoped to decide by January. Then she said summer, which turned into September. All year, she had agonized: Should she run for governor again?

Finally, with time to launch a campaign running out, Alex Sink broke the news Sept. 20: She would not try in 2014 for the job she almost won in 2010.

Instead, she would continue to work with entrepreneurs through her Florida Next Foundation and support candidates "who I believe share my vision."

The announcement wasn't entirely unexpected. It was widely known that Sink's kids, both in graduate school in Gainesville, didn't want her to run. Neither did her 90-year-old dad. They knew how much money she would need, how ugly campaigns could be.

But there was another, more private factor that weighed on Sink's decision, and she thought about it every time she walked into her closet and forced herself not to look to the right.

• • •

This is the story of Sink's nine months without her husband, Bill McBride, the private journey of a public person working out her next role.

Adelaide Alexander "Alex" Sink is 65, but looks years younger. A staunch Democrat, she has served as the state's chief financial officer, president of Bank of America's Florida operations, chairwoman of Florida's Nature Conservancy.

In 2010, she lost the governorship to Republican Rick Scott by just 1 percent — the closest race ever — even though he outspent her by $57 million. She got within 60,000 votes of becoming the state's first female governor.

When the election was over, she went home to Bill. He had run for governor himself in 2002, losing to Jeb Bush. Throughout their 26-year marriage, Bill had been Sink's political partner, her sounding board, her fundraiser. And cheerleader. As recently as last Thanksgiving, he was encouraging her to run in 2014.

Then, just before Christmas, he suddenly died.

Friends and family sustained Sink through the first numb weeks, but it wasn't long before her admirers began tugging at her. They cornered her at the airport, the post office, the gym: "Please, Alex, we need you! Florida needs you!" They wanted to contribute to her campaign, plant signs, work the phones.

"I understand all the tough times that you have been through personally," someone wrote on her Facebook. "But please think of the young people, the future of Florida and our country."

She knew she had the support, believed she could help improve Florida's education, economy and transportation. She wants Scott out of office. She even pictured herself moving into the Governor's Mansion. Alone.

Figuring out whether to run again, Sink said, was "the hardest decision I ever had to make."

And the toughest part: Having to make it without Bill.

• • •

She is still trying to clean out his half of their home office, wondering whether to sell his Gators tickets, struggling to ride the waves of grief that sideswipe her.

"It's getting easier, slowly," Sink said in early September in the sprawling home she shared with Bill on Lake Thonotosassa. "But it's still too quiet, too lonely."

She still sleeps closest to the bathroom, on her side of their bed. Still thinks of things to tell him in the dark. Over the years they were often apart, traveling. She wakes sometimes, hoping he has come home.

In many ways, Sink's journey parallels that of other women who have transitioned from wife to widow, from a lifetime of "we" to a new normal, "me."

Author Joan Didion chronicled similar experiences in her 2005 bestseller, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Like Sink, she lost a partner who shared her professional success and had to console a grown daughter and examine her new identity.

"Life changes fast," Didion wrote. "Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

After Bill's funeral, someone gave Didion's book to Sink. She hasn't opened it. "I just can't let myself go there," she said. "It wouldn't be worth it."

For Sink, ever the CFO, this has been a year of mathematical thinking.

She gets by on careful calculations: When you go to a fundraiser, drive yourself so you can leave if the tears come. Schedule meals with friends so you don't have to eat alone. Exercise, pack your schedule, travel. Stay in hotels because then you won't wake up and wonder why Bill isn't there.

And when you walk into the closet, don't look to the right. All of his things are gone.

• • •

On their last day together, Dec. 22, Sink and her husband strolled the streets of tiny Mount Airy, N.C. — the model for Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show.

Sink grew up there, in a three-story, 19th century farmhouse built by her great-grandfather and his brother, the original Siamese twins. Chang and Eng Bunker toured with P.T. Barnum and used their sideshow earnings to buy a 110-acre tobacco farm. They married sisters and raised 21 children between them.

Sink's father still lives in that home. She and her sister, their husbands and most of their kids had gone back for the holidays.

"We went shopping that morning. Bill took me to a jewelry store and told me to pick out my present," Sink said. She chose sapphire earrings that match her engagement ring.

They bought clothes for their kids. Ate pork chop sandwiches.

Back at the house, Bill went up to his room to read.

"Mom, come here!" her son, Bert, cried just before dinner. "Dad's collapsed."

After that, everything seemed surreal. Her brother-in-law trying to breathe life back into Bill, the ambulance squealing, the pronouncement: heart attack.

Bill had suffered one before, after he ran for governor. This time, doctors couldn't bring him back. He was 67. "But God was looking out for me," Sink said. "When it happened, I had all my family to help."

It didn't register right away that Bill was gone. Instead, Sink focused on what she had to do: contact a funeral home, schedule cremation, stay strong for the kids, Bert and Lexi.

At the memorial, hundreds of people packed Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa to tell stories about Bill the Marine, Bill the fisherman, Bill the lawyer, mentor, life of the party. Former Gov. Bob Martinez was there, along with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. The children gave eulogies.

Sink wanted to tell everyone about their first date, selling hot dogs at Bert's football games, long weekends at their house in the Bahamas. She wanted to tell everyone that when Bill was running for governor, he came home almost every night, no matter how far the trip, so he could be there in the morning to hug their kids before school.

But Sink worried she might break down. What good would that do? So she didn't speak.

• • •

Sink started her banking career in North Carolina when she was 25, climbing the ladder at NationsBank, making her way in a man's world. When the bank promoted her to a job in Miami in 1984, everyone kept telling her about this good ol' boy, do-gooder Democrat lawyer in Tampa, an English major who played Gator football, left law school to fight in Vietnam, came back and made Law Review, then landed a position at Holland & Knight.

"Bill McBride is the state's most eligible bachelor," Sink remembers a friend telling her. "You have to meet him."

Sink, who had married and divorced by 23, was 36 then —and in no hurry to pair up. Bill, who had never married, was 39.

Their first date was to play tennis. "It wasn't love at first sight," Sink said. "He was this big, boisterous party guy." But that night, he told her he was heading to San Francisco to be a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. Geraldine Ferraro was about to be nominated as the first female candidate for vice president. "I thought, hmmmm, he might be the one for me."

He took her to the convention. They married two years later in Coconut Grove, at a church ceremony attended by only 10 friends. Their two kids came quickly. "He was really anxious to be a dad."

Sink flew every other weekend from Miami to Tampa, with two babies and diaper bags in tow. Finally, after she became president of Bank of America's Florida operations and he was promoted to oversee 380 lawyers at Holland & Knight, they were able to move to the same place.

They bought 30 acres on Lake Thonotosassa, hired an architect to design a 4,000-square-foot home like the one Sink grew up in, and raised their kids between the water and an orange grove.

Every fall, when they threw parties for 500 friends, Bill insisted on roasting a pig.

• • •

If she could handle the funeral, she told herself, she could handle whatever came next.

But when it was over, she came home to the house just as she and Bill had left it. His black labs, Thunder and Boo, kept whining, looking for him. His newspapers still blanketed the kitchen table. Upstairs, his toothbrush waited by the sink.

"I kept thinking he was away on a long trip," Sink said. Only she couldn't call him to ask for advice, catch him up on the kids. Or tell him how hard this was, how she was struggling to hold everything together.

That first month, she cleared her calendar, mostly stayed home, made herself open the mail. Was it okay to grieve? To get angry or weep? Or would that be self-indulgent?

When Bill suffered his first heart attack, Sink had told him to stop feeling sorry for himself and get over it. His family needed him. Now she gave herself the same order: Pull yourself together. Do you think you're the first person to lose a spouse?

She started sorting through his stuff. At least she could control that. Or thought she could.

It took six weeks to clear his law office of files, thank-you cards, plaques and awards. Another two to tackle his half of the closet. As she folded his tailored suits into bags for her church's thrift shop, memories tore at her like a riptide, dragging her down. That was the tie he wore to their daughter's wedding, there was his fishing shirt. She sat in their walk-in closet, holding his lucky poker shirt. It still smelled like Bill.

She knew she needed to clean out his desk too, the one in the home office. But she didn't. Or couldn't. Later, when she found the birthday card, she was glad she had left that until last.

• • •

"In the beginning, it was really tough on my mom," said Bert McBride, 25. In January, he went back to law school at the University of Florida and his sister, 24, returned to medical school there. "But she's always been independent, always believed in moving forward. I knew she wouldn't just sit around and retire."

By March, Sink was working again, traveling to Miami for bank meetings, leading boards, helping young business owners through her Florida Next Foundation. She seemed fine, glad to be productive again.

Until someone came up to hug her and tell her how much they had loved Bill and were thinking of her. Sometimes, after she thanked them, she had to leave.

"It's hard on anyone, going through grief like that, but she had to do so much of it in the public light," said Liana Fernandez Fox, a fundraiser on McBride's campaign and now one of Sink's closest friends.

"I'm not sure who expects more of Alex: The public or herself," Fox said. "I'm not sure she has allowed herself enough time to grieve."

Sink's calendar seldom has a clear day. But since spring, her schedule has been even more packed. "She's going faster than ever. That might be her coping," said her assistant, Nicole Trailer. "She's trying to stay away as much as possible." There is no one, now, to come home to.

No one to cheer for the Rays with you or go to movies with you. No one to sit beside you in church. No one to listen to you rant about Rick Scott.

They were supposed to grow old together. They were going to travel and have grandkids and teach them how to water ski. They had causes to champion, campaigns to wage, trips to take.

They had planned to go to the Florida Folk Festival with another couple in May. Sink thought about canceling. Instead, she said, "I went without him. Now I'm the third wheel."

• • •

She still wakes before dawn, sits in her chair at the kitchen table sipping black coffee. Still watches the sunrise stain the lake pink.

He used to be across from her, looking at her instead of the view.

He had loved her for almost half her life, and still bragged about his beautiful wife. No one else thought of her like that, or knew that version of her. Before she was a mother or bank president or politician.

She has survived so many firsts without him: the first New Year's, first Valentine's Day, Mother's and Father's days, her birthday and his. "I'm not looking forward to this fall," Sink said. "All those charity balls and black-tie dinners we used to do. I don't want to go by myself." Everyone else will be dancing.

Her daughter asked her whether she will ever date. Sink's answer: It's not part of the equation right now.

First, she has to get used to coming home to a dark house, to not seeing his Ford Explorer in the driveway. A few weeks ago, for the first time, she went to the theater alone to see Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. On the way home, she was eager to talk about it. But to whom?

She is still sorting through his desk. On her dresser, she piled keepsakes for each of their children.

For Bert, mostly books: Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln, and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. For Lexi, she saved a Little League photo because Bill was always her coach.

For herself, she kept a birthday card, the last one he gave her. The lighthouse in the Bahamas, near their vacation home, is on the front. Inside, Bill had written a poem:

"In the late summer of my life / I met the woman to be my wife / like searching for treasure on a lonely beach / I wooed a lady beyond my reach."

Sink swallowed as she read his words, dabbed at her eyes. "I won't get one of those again."

She still has Bill's cellphone, with all his contacts. But in a political race, what good would they be? He wouldn't be there to make the fundraising calls. And after an 18-hour day of campaigning, she knew, no one would be there to pour her a glass of wine and tell her not to take politics personally.

"Bill was incredibly positive, he had great instincts and a knack for looking at the big picture," Sink said. "Without him, it's like having my right hand cut off."

Money was another part of the equation. "It had a lot to do with, where would the funding come from?" said Bert. "In the end, it's about the math for my mom. How can you compete against someone who can keep writing himself checks for millions of dollars?"

Two days after she announced her decision, Sink flew to China with the United Way. "I'm ready for her regrets when she gets back," said her friend Fox. "She will have them. She really wanted to be governor."

In an email from China, Sink said that if Bill were still alive, "I don't know, in the end, if he would have talked me into it or not."

She didn't say she can't run without him.

She just doesn't want to. Not yet.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

After devastating loss, Alex Sink pauses her political journey 09/27/13 [Last modified: Saturday, September 28, 2013 7:39pm]

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