TALLAHASSEE — The voice of the Florida Senate is gone.
Sen. Jim King, the longtime Republican legislator whose legacy was giving Floridians the right to refuse life-prolonging medical care, died Sunday (July 26, 2009). His death came less than three months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same disease that took his father. He was 69.
With his stout presence, easygoing manner and penchant for distilling complex issues to quotable one-liners, Sen. King was one of the most popular members of the Legislature for more than two decades. His death silences the voice of a Republican who was strongly pro-business on fiscal issues but moderate on social matters such as abortion. Sen. King's most high-profile vote against party lines came in 2005, when he and nine other Republicans sided with Democrats to defeat the measure aimed at keeping Pinellas County's Terri Schiavo alive with a feeding tube.
"He's a Republican, but he has transcended the process," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "Your currency in Tallahassee is whether people respect you, and he has so much of that. He is utterly authentic. It is a rare commodity, and he has it to excess. He was the giant of state government."
Sen. King, who served as Senate president from 2002 to 2004, lived to the fullest — and with a rollicking personality that let him get away with excesses others might not have. He was passionate about all things related to Florida State University. He was a frequent face at the Governor's Club lounge, where bartenders knew without asking what to pour: Bacardi 8 and Diet Coke with a twist of lime. Sen. King enjoyed Sonny's Bar-B-Q, Chinese food and fried chicken just as much as his cocktails. And his deep love for Linda, his wife of more than 30 years, didn't keep him from innocent flirting with pretty women.
"Some may look at me and see Jackie Gleason," Sen. King once joked. "I look at me and see Sean Connery."
Throughout his career, Sen. King sponsored legislation dealing with everything from cancer research and carry-out wine to pet owners' right to be buried with their pets' ashes. But it was Sen. King's strong feelings about how sick people should spend their final days that became the hallmark of his career.
"There are thousands of Floridians out there who feel as I: That there has to be some death with dignity. That their will — theirs, not yours, theirs — on themselves must be honored," he told fellow senators in 2000, the year the Legislature passed his bill allowing patients to refuse feeding tubes and other life-sustaining measures.
Successful in business
Sen. King, the son of a career military officer, grew up in St. Petersburg. He once dreamed of being a sports reporter but joked that he reconsidered when he learned about the mediocre pay. He was business-savvy from the start, operating his own business stripping and waxing department store floors when he was just 16.
Sen. King graduated from St. Petersburg Junior College in 1959 and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from FSU. He joined the Coast Guard and settled in Jacksonville with Linda and two daughters. Sen. King later made millions when he sold off his personnel management business.
"He and his wife took a $19,000 home equity loan and turned it into a $6 million business," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, Sen. King's close friend. "But he was humble. He'd be just as happy in a Waffle House as he would at Bern's Steak House."
Sen. King was first elected to the Legislature in 1986, a Republican in a House of Representatives led by Democrats. But he found prominence early on, thanks to his rapport with Democrats and his reputation among the Capitol press corps as the go-to lawmaker for witty insight.
Sen. King called himself "the best quote in Florida."
Asked once by Times veteran Lucy Morgan why he took on politics, he quipped that it was his "midlife crisis": "I didn't fit into a Porsche. And my wife was extremely negative on my having an affair with an 18-year-old."
When Sen. King finally ascended to the Senate presidency in 2002, he was dealt an unfortunate dance partner: House Speaker Johnnie Byrd.
Sen. King and the ultra-conservative Plant City Republican clashed on a number of issues.
"He got saddled with Johnnie Byrd, and it was an absolute nightmare," said Jones, a legislator since 1978. "Jim could not propose one thing and get Byrd to agree to it."
A Rockefeller Republican whose girth seemed to grow with his power, Sen. King was passionate about health care issues. His father's painful and lingering death from pancreatic cancer made him believe firmly that sick people should have the right to die in peace — without the intrusion of doctors or politicians.
When he sided with Democrats in March 2005 to defeat legislation aimed at keeping Schiavo alive with a feeding tube, he was unapologetic and characteristically blunt about the decision that drew conservatives' ire.
"I have a personal feeling about what's right," Sen. King told reporters. "I think Terri's better off in heaven than in bed."
Two years earlier, while Senate president, Sen. King had sided under pressure with Republicans by voting in favor of a last-minute law to have Schiavo's tube reinserted — against the wishes of her husband and contrary to a judge's ruling.
Sen. King later called it "one of the worst votes I ever did."
"Jimmy has always talked about 'what's the right thing to do?' He was a 'what's right for the people, what feels good to me in my gut' kind of lawmaker," said T.K. Wetherell, former House speaker and now FSU president. "You had to go to Jimmy issue by issue."
He was that way to the end: Last year, Sen. King was one of seven Republicans to join Democrats in narrowly defeating then-Majority Leader Dan Webster's bill requiring ultrasounds for women seeking first-trimester abortions.
"My personal opinion: Unless we ovulate, we have no place making decisions affecting women's reproductive rights," Sen. King said before voting against Webster's proposal.
'There is a heaven'
Newspaper editors lambasted Sen. King in 2001 when he sponsored a bill to shield autopsy photographs from the public after racing star Dale Earnhardt died. But Sen. King's straightforward, pithy quotes — coupled with his institutional memory — made him a favorite of the press corps in Tallahassee.
After the rest of the Senate left the chambers following a day of votes and debate, Sen. King stayed, sitting almost supine in his big leather chair, holding court. He would stay as long as reporters asked questions, and he rarely issued a "no comment."
As reporters sat up in the press gallery typing notes from the floor debate, it was often Sen. King's quotes that ended up in their stories.
Last year, during debate on a proposal to ban the steel testicles called "Truck Nutz" from the back of vehicles, Sen. King couldn't help himself.
"It is a statement of, you know, just … truck-iness," he said, smiling. "And I'll have to admit that my Suburban has them on it. And so I guess my question is, you know, what makes it obscene?"
At the end of this past legislative session, as some Democrats stood poised to vote against the state's budget, Sen. King took the microphone and delivered a forceful speech that silenced the chamber and persuaded them to vote in favor.
"If you vote against this, why would this president (Jeff Atwater) or any other presiding officer in the future want to include you? What kind of message is that?" Sen. King said. "Think long and hard, gentlemen and ladies, before you cast that red vote. … If what he gets for that is everybody's negative vote who's a Democrat, then shame on you."
But his most notable speech came March 23, 2005, before he voted against the proposal to keep Schiavo alive with a feeding tube.
"I happen to believe in my heart of hearts as a practicing Christian that there is a heaven," he said, standing at the front of the Senate chamber. "From the time I was knee-high, I was taught that heaven is a great place to be. No matter what your good life was on earth, heaven was even better, no matter what your plight on earth, heaven was better."
Sen. King is survived by his wife, Linda; his daughters, Monta Michelle and Laurie Anne; and grandchildren Ashley, Carley and Jack.
Memorial services will be held at St. John's Cathedral in Jacksonville at 11 a.m. Saturday and in Tallahassee in the House Chambers at the Capitol at 2 p.m. Aug. 4.
Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo, Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.