TALLAHASSEE — George Sheldon, a veteran public official who championed liberal causes as a Tampa legislator three decades ago, was named Tuesday by Gov. Charlie Crist to take over Florida's Department of Children and Families.
The 61-year-old lawyer and Democrat served as assistant DCF secretary for operations under his mentor, Bob Butterworth, and became interim secretary when Butterworth resigned in August.
"George understands the people business," Crist said.
Sheldon will earn $120,640 a year overseeing an agency that protects children from abuse, distributes food stamps to needy families and seeks private adoptions of foster children. The agency has 13,000 employees and a $3-billion budget, which Sheldon said requires a need for more efficiency.
"This job, I think, really is about children who need to pull themselves up," Sheldon said. "It's about that family in need who needs food stamps."
Sheldon advocates tackling alcohol and drug abuse, poverty and unemployment to address family problems that can lead to child abuse and domestic violence.
Sheldon sidestepped the question of whether Florida should rescind its controversial, decades-old law that prevents gay couples from adopting.
"That's a policy decision that the Legislature needs to deal with," he said. "I'm really just executing the statutes."
Andrea Moore, a South Florida lawyer and child welfare advocate, called Sheldon's selection "an exceptionally good choice. … He also has the experience now to know what else needs to be fixed and the respect of all who work with him to get it done."
Long before it was politically acceptable in Florida, Sheldon supported lighter penalties for first-time marijuana users. He also built a record as an environmentalist and lobbied for conservation causes in the 1980s.
Sheldon was a deputy state attorney general when Butterworth was state attorney general, and an associate dean at St. Thomas University law school in Miami when Butterworth was dean.
George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff, said Sheldon "gets things done. He's responsive."
A Wildwood, N.J., native, Sheldon began his career as a college intern to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. After college, he was an aide to then-Sen. Reubin Askew of Pensacola, who was elected governor in 1970.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com.