Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Charles Whitehead, former chairman of Florida Democratic Party, dies

Charles Whitehead was a self-described North Florida liberal who led state Democrats.

Charles Whitehead was a self-described North Florida liberal who led state Democrats.

TALLAHASSEE ­­— Charles Whitehead, who served as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party during its years of power in the 1980s and returned a decade later to revive a broke and dispirited party, died Saturday.

Mr. Whitehead turned 83 two weeks ago and died of natural causes at his home in Panama City, said his son-in-law, Screven Watson, a Tallahassee political strategist and former executive director of the party.

The burly and good-natured Mr. Whitehead was a party leader at a time when Democrats were often torn apart by infighting. Bob Graham was a popular two-term governor, and Democrats controlled the Legislature and most statewide offices as the national party took a beating in three consecutive presidential elections from 1980 to 1988.

"He wasn't just a Democrat or a Republican. He was a Floridian — Mr. Integrity,'' said former four-term state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who sought Mr. Whitehead's advice in his first statewide race in 1986. "He considered his role as party chairman to be a public service. He did it with dignity, grace and professionalism and he made you feel good to be in public service.''

A self-described North Florida liberal, Mr. Whitehead helped deliver a Florida straw ballot victory for little-known Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign and was state party chairman throughout the 1980s. Democrats stumbled badly in 1986 when Republican Bob Martinez, a former Tampa mayor, won the Governor's Mansion in part because Democrats failed to unify behind their nominee, state Rep. Steve Pajcic of Jacksonville.

Reflecting on those years in a 2004 interview, Mr. Whitehead said the Democrats' downfall in Florida was accelerated by the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the year Mr. Whitehead took over the state party reins.

"Everyone he touched in Florida got elected, and it started to snowball. He built the Republican Party in Florida," Mr. Whitehead told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "From Pensacola to Jacksonville, that's where he really killed us. Those are strong military areas and he was strong on the military."

With Reagan in the White House, dozens of conservative Democratic politicians in North Florida jumped ship to the GOP, and Democrats soon became the minority party at the state level.

After stepping down in 1988, Mr. Whitehead returned in 1999 and replaced Mitch Ceasar, who held the job for 10 months but struggled to raise money.

Mr. Whitehead was a star tailback at Port St. Joe High School who went to the University of Miami on a football scholarship.

He was a radar operator in the Korean War.

He was a longtime Ford dealer in Panama City, and for part of his time as chairman, his Republican counterpart was Tommy Thomas, who sold Chevrolets across the street. The power brokers worked in concert to tweak state laws to benefit car dealers at the expense of manufacturers.

The two men were rivals in politics and in car showrooms, but were friends who enjoyed hunting and playing poker together.

"They wouldn't dare miss their regular poker games," recalled Lawrence Tyree, a friend and former president of Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.

Allison Tant, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said Mr. Whitehead "never failed to be there when his party or state needed him. For decades, Charlie was a happy warrior, always working for a better, more just Florida."

The party gives out an annual Charles Whitehead Legacy Award to a non-elected Democrat, and the last winner was Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, honored posthumously in 2013.

Mr. Whitehead had not been visible in statewide politics for more than a decade, but he endorsed Charlie Crist as an independent U.S. Senate candidate in 2010.

Mr. Whitehead is survived by Betty Feagle, his companion for more than 30 years. Watson said they met at a political event, naturally, a Panhandle fundraiser for Doyle Conner, who was the state agriculture commissioner for three decades.

Times correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at or (850) 224-7263.

Correction: Lawrence Tyree is the former president of Gulf Coast State College. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name.

Charles Whitehead, former chairman of Florida Democratic Party, dies 02/02/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 3, 2014 9:57am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Review / photos: Sunset Music Festival wraps up with Above and Beyond, more at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa


    The first numbers trickled in on Sunday, and they didn't look great.

    Louis the Child performed at the Sunset Music Festival at Raymond James Stadium on May 28, 2017.
  2. Philippines forces make gains in city under siege by ISIS-linked militants

    MARAWI, Philippines — Philippine forces say they now control most of a southern city where militants linked to the Islamic State group launched a bloody siege nearly a week ago.

  3. Rays exhausted but happy after 15-inning win over Twins (w/video)

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — Before the Rays eventually won Sunday's 6½-hour, 15-inning marathon against the Twins 8-6, they did plenty to lose it. And we need to get that out of the way first.

    The Rays’ Evan Longoria enjoys a laugh after scoring, barely, to tie it in the ninth on Steven Souza Jr.’s two-out single.
  4. Tom Jones' Two Cents: ABC's Indy 500 coverage is stellar again

    TV and Radio

    Times columnist Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a weekend of televised sports.

    Best coverage

    Takuma Sato left, celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 as Helio Castroneves is a little late passing him. ABC’s coverage of the race is stellar throughout, with plenty of extras but no fake drama.
  5. Takuma Sato surprise winner of wreck-filled Indy 500

    Auto racing

    INDIANAPOLIS — Takuma Sato, a journeyman driver, became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday when he held off three-time champion Helio Castroneves in a 230-mph wheel-rubbing duel to the finish.

    Scott Dixon’s car goes over the top of Jay Howard, soaring so high that Helio Castroneves drove under it while it was airborne. Stunningly, there were no serious injuries.