TALLAHASSEE — Bill McBride, a gregarious Tampa lawyer with a common touch whose dream of being governor of Florida ended in a lopsided loss to Jeb Bush in 2002, died Saturday. He was 67.
McBride, the husband of Alex Sink, who was the 2010 Democratic candidate for governor, suffered a heart attack while on a holiday trip to North Carolina. Along with the couple's son, Bert, daughter, Lexi, and other family members, they had gathered for Christmas in Sink's hometown of Mount Airy, N.C.
Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta newspaper in Tampa and a family friend, said McBride was found unconscious after he had excused himself from a game of cards.
"They had gone up to North Carolina to visit her side of the family. They had a perfectly great trip, ate at a restaurant that had great pork chops, and in the evening were playing gin rummy. Bill got up and left and didn't come back," Manteiga said. "They're a great family. It was a great, great time of their life."
Manteiga said details on services would be forthcoming.
"Bill's most outstanding quality is that he is the most fantastic father in the world," said Bob Bolt, McBride's law partner and a close friend since they were high school football rivals.
"He always made sure he got home at night to see his kids. They are the most important thing in his life, both of them."
Bolt said McBride played competitive handball as recently as last week. A lover of baseball, football, fishing and anything involving his alma mater, the University of Florida, he played at the Harbour Island Athletic Club & Spa, where in 2003 he collapsed while working out on a treadmill.
McBride underwent an angioplasty, in which doctors inserted a stent into a closed coronary artery to reopen it.
He was an imposing figure, at 6-feet-3 and well over 200 pounds, but had a wide, easy grin and a folksy demeanor.
Despite his success and wealth in the corporate world, McBride enjoyed wearing an old gray sweatshirt, eating cheeseburgers and slaw dogs and drinking a glass of bourbon. He remained steadfastly proud of his small-town roots in 1950s Leesburg, north of Orlando.
McBride was born on May 10, 1945. The son of a TV repairman, he played fullback and linebacker in high school and held a variety of jobs to support himself. "You get a chance to build confidence as a kid in a small town." McBride told the Miami Herald in 2002.
His parents were divorced in his freshman year at UF and a knee injury derailed his football career, but he followed a well-worn path to politics as a member of the Blue Key honor society and president of a leading campus fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega.
After a year of law school at UF, McBride joined the Marines, rose to the rank of captain and received the Bronze Star with a Combat V for valor for service during the Vietnam War.
After returning and finishing law school, he became a civic leader in such organizations as United Way and the Florida Holocaust Museum and was a sought-after fundraiser for Democratic candidates. McBride was managing partner of Holland & Knight, which for many years was the state's largest law firm and where his mentor was Chesterfield Smith, a former American Bar Association president.
After a decade in charge of Holland & Knight's global operations spanning six countries, he joined the Tampa law firm of Barnett, Bolt, Kirkwood, Long & McBride. He was a senior partner at the time of his death.
Political leaders from throughout Florida paid tribute.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, called McBride "a strong advocate for public education and civil rights."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called him "a good man known for his caring heart."
"He embraced life so that it seems all the more shocking that his life has ended," former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "There was so much good in him."
On Twitter, Jeb Bush said: "Thoughts and prayers are with Alex and Bill's entire family."
Gov. Rick Scott, who defeated Alex Sink in 2010, said: "Bill McBride was a great lawyer, a devoted public servant, a veteran and a talented leader. … Florida is no doubt a better place because people like Bill McBride commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of others."
Said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in a statement: "Bill McBride was larger than life. He was one of the great business, legal and political leaders of Florida, and he is a friend that many of us will miss."
Democratic political strategist Steve Schale said a cup of coffee with McBride at his Tampa law office two weeks ago turned into a two-hour conversation — mostly not about politics. Schale said McBride spoke proudly of son Bert studying to be a lawyer and daughter Lexi's recent completion of her third year of medical school. "He was just beaming. He was in a good mood as always," Schale recalled. "It was two hours I'll always treasure."
McBride and Sink lived in an elegant home with a large wraparound porch on 30 acres overlooking Lake Thonotosassa near Tampa. But he drove a Ford pickup with more than 150,000 miles on it and liked to talk about the common sense he got from ordinary people at the nearby Circle K convenience store.
In a lengthy profile of McBride in the Times in 2002, longtime friend Steve Brewer, a retired Busch Gardens executive, said McBride had a genuine feel for people from all walks of life. "He could walk into an orange grove and start singing with the Haitian pickers, then go have meatloaf with the guys at the Flying J Truck Stop," Brewer said — and then go to Tallahassee "and have all the suaveness and smoothness of a guy from Harvard."
But McBride, a novice as a candidate, proved no match for the formidable Bush machine in the 2002 race. McBride had never before run for office and it sometimes showed, as he would often note in a self-deprecating way, and he relied — excessively, critics said — on teacher union leaders to make key campaign decisions.
McBride defeated former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the Democratic primary to earn a matchup with Bush, who defeated McBride by 13 points in easily winning a second term.
That was two years after Bush's brother George had captured the White House by a 537-vote margin in Florida.
The Bush-McBride campaign's most memorable moment came during a live TV debate at the University of Central Florida. Under intense questioning by moderator Tim Russert of NBC, McBride was vague and unconvincing when pressed to say where he would find billions to pay for a state constitutional amendment requiring smaller class sizes.
McBride supported the class size amendment and Bush opposed it. Voters approved it that November.
Campaign aides later said that McBride refused to engage in mock debates that might have avoided such a gaffe.
After his crushing loss, McBride phoned his friend Manteiga, the newspaper publisher. "He said, 'I'm sorry I let you down,' " Manteiga said. "I've never heard another politician say that."
Times staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report.