Daniel Ruth: George Sheldon was a reliable friend to Florida’s most vulnerable citizens

Published August 29 2018

An unkind description of George Sheldon, who died a few days ago at 71, was that he ran the risk of becoming a Florida version of Minnesotan Harold Stassen, who unsuccessfully ran for president nine times.

After serving in the Florida House, Sheldon, a Democrat, subsequently ran for Congress, Florida commissioner of education and twice sought to become Florida attorney general — all for naught.

But the former Tampa resident was much more than the sum of his electoral track record. He was indeed a true public servant and a champion of children in need. And his passing in Miami from complications following surgery for a neck injury is a poignant reminder of the meaning of public service in these highly charged political times.

RELATED: Former Florida DCF secretary dies after fall

In 1999 Sheldon served as deputy attorney general under Attorney General Bob Butterworth, overseeing civil rights and consumer protection.

And in 2008 he was appointed secretary of the Department of Children and Families, by the same man who had defeated him twice for education commissioner and attorney general — then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

"We were opponents, but never enemies," Crist told the Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller.

The DCF post is a miserable, high-pressure, thankless job. Something is always going wrong. But on Sheldon’s watch, the secretary helped save 750 Haitian refugee children and some 628 medical evacuees fleeing their nation after a horrendous earthquake.

Sheldon won acclaim for his efforts in reinvigorating DCF and eventually went to work as a top administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama Administration.

And yes, there were downsides, too.

A 2015 stint as the director of the Illinois Department of Childhood and Family Services did not end well amid accusations of mismanagement. Well, it was Illinois after all.

Sheldon rebounded, becoming CEO of Our Kids Miami, an advocacy group.

Following his death, the accolades poured in from the likes of Butterworth and Crist, attesting to Sheldon’s service, his dedication, his personal courtliness and ability to work across party lines. They were all deserved.

Politics was a not blood sport for Sheldon, which might explain why his elective career stalled in a state where the O’Jays’ Backstabbers ought to be Florida’s anthem.

Sheldon worked on behalf for the Association of Retarded Childrens’ Tampa office, senior citizens and other vulnerable constituencies.

All in all, not a bad career.

A quick story.

Back in 1980, I was president of the board of the Hillsborough County Suicide Crisis Center. And yes, you are quite right. They were obviously desperate.

The crisis center in those days was an extremely modest agency. We came up with the brilliant idea to host a fundraising event, a roast of George Sheldon, who also had been instrumental in helping the crisis center get off the ground.

As the crowd was preparing to take their seats in a banquet room at the Airport Marriott, I briefly stepped out into the hallway. It was a fortuitous moment.

For there was South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern walking toward me. Sheldon had served as state organizer for McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential campaign.

The senator happened to be on his way to speak to another group at the hotel. But I asked him if he would be kind enough to come to our event for a few minutes to talk about Sheldon, and he graciously agreed.

I quickly announced to the crowd we had a surprise guest and McGovern took to the dais where he spent the next five minutes roasting and praising Sheldon. You might be surprised to know, McGovern was actually rather funny.

I have no idea how much money we raised that night, but the look of amazement on Sheldon’s face as McGovern entered the room was a tribute enough to a good and caring man.