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GOP loses stalwart James Stenholm

His quiet persistence helped to transform county politics. He died Wednesday at 70.

James Stenholm, according to one county commissioner who served with him, didn't dominate discussions and didn't generate much controversy.

"He was there and he was steady and he voted his convictions, but he wasn't an aggressive person at all. He wasn't a loudmouth like me," said former Commissioner and state Rep. Chuck Smith.

But Mr. Stenholm, who died Wednesday of emphysema at age 70, quietly helped to bring about a revolution.

In 1968, when Hernando County had only 831 registered Republicans, Mr. Stenholm became its first Republican commissioner. Democrats ruled politics in Hernando at the time, as they did in much of the South. Republicans were so irrelevant that most elections were decided in Democratic primaries.

That changed in the decades after Mr. Stenholm's election, to the point that, throughout the 1990s, Republicans were the county's dominant party. The county listed more Republican than Democratic voters for the first time in 1993; they now outnumber Democrats 40,958 to 38,312, though Democrats did sweep the elections in November.

"Jim was one of the early hard workers, who was willing to sacrifice to get things going," said Thomas Hogan Sr., the county's Republican state committeeman and a party member since 1964.

"When I heard he had passed away, I couldn't help running all that through my mind _ the loyalty, the sacrifice, the dedication. He was an all-around good guy."

Mr. Stenholm, who owned a realty and insurance company in Brooksville, served two terms before being defeated in a Republican primary in 1976. He was a member of the commission that hired former County Attorney Bruce Snow in 1972, and Snow said that group was the first to take on the issues of the county's rapid growth.

"That was a transitional time in Hernando County," Snow said.

That commission began improving roads throughout the county; it took over small, independent utilities that would evolve into the county's current water and sewer systems. In 1972, the commission wrote the county's first comprehensive zoning law.

"There were some very controversial zoning hearings in the old courtroom," Snow said.

Mr. Stenholm, Snow said, was an avid hunter and fisherman who had a concern for the environment. He favored the zoning law, Snow said, despite his profession as a real estate broker and his belief that government should intrude in business dealings as little as possible.

In the 1970s, Mr. Stenholm developed a subdivision north of Brooksville, Royal Oaks Estates. Snow said it was unusual for the time because it featured large, wooded lots.

Smith remembered Mr. Stenholm's party affiliation was a virtual non-issue _ partly because of Mr. Stenholm's nonconfrontational approach and partly because Republicans were so rare, they were not viewed as a real threat.

His wife, Joyce, also said her husband kept the importance of the party in perspective.

"He always told me he worked for the people of Hernando County and not the party necessarily," she said.

But Mr. Stenholm, in a 1996 interview, remembered that it could be lonely being the commission's only Republican.

"We had so many 4-1 votes it wasn't funny," he said then. "It's a true two-party system now, and I think that's good."