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Floridians reflect on Sen. Ted Kennedy's life, politics

Whether they considered themselves allies or foes of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the famously liberal Democrat's death was mourned across Florida's political spectrum Wednesday.

Republicans and Democrats alike couldn't deny the influence of Kennedy, who died Tuesday from brain cancer at age 77.

"Most Americans cannot remember a time without Ted Kennedy," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "Whatever your political persuasion, you had to respect his lion-like conviction."

U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, considered himself a longtime friend of Kennedy, as the two worked together primarily on health issues.

"If we had different opinions, which we did from time to time, we just talked them out," he said. "Ted Kennedy was always a gentleman and always respectful of those he was dealing with."

Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, whose mother was the first black woman elected to the Florida Senate, credited Kennedy for everything from "strengthening the quality of education for our students, to improving the quality of health care for our seniors, to ensuring equality and civil rights for all Americans."

"Sen. Kennedy did not simply live for the Senate — he was the heart of the Senate," Meek said in a prepared statement Wednesday morning. "Respected by all of his colleagues, Sen. Kennedy's thoughtfulness, conviction and passion were attached to signature pieces of legislation that have profoundly shaped our nation for the better."

Having served as chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate's investigations committee, state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he was impressed with Sen. Kennedy's ability to command respect from polarized sides of issues.

"He knew how to passionately defend his core beliefs and stand on principle, yet his fingerprints are on countless laws passed during both Republican and Democratic presidencies," Gelber said in a statement.

Former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack worked with Kennedy on health policy issues such as stem cell research, women's health and assistance for people living with HIV and AIDS. He also expressed his condolences through a statement.

"Despite our ideological differences, Ted worked with my Republican colleagues and me to forge bipartisan solutions on some of the most important and complex public health challenges facing our nation," Mack said.

Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said she had only met Sen. Kennedy once at a conference, and she could barely recall the encounter. But observing Sen. Kennedy's career and political views throughout her life may have shaped her own career.

"From my perspective, he's the most memorable senator in my memory, and probably in my lifetime," said Freedman, 65, who was mayor from 1986 to 1995. "He's certainly been supportive of women. I was always amazed at how much he did for people with disabilities, the handicapped and poor. And I spent a lot of my lifetime working with those less fortunate, so I think in that regard, I can relate."

Sen. Kennedy's imprint undoubtedly made its way into all corners of Florida politics, as several notable public officials — Democrats and Republicans — have either worked with or for the senator.

George Sheldon, a veteran Tampa politician who now heads Florida's Department of Children and Families, began his career as a college intern to Kennedy. And St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons, a Republican who worked to help elect Govs. Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, was once an aide to the liberal senator.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Floridians reflect on Sen. Ted Kennedy's life, politics 08/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 10:54am]
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