Bill McBride

Bill McBride, a Tampa attorney and Vietnam veteran who stunned Janet Reno for the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial bid before falling to then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 67.

Alex Sink, McBride's wife who lost her own race for governor to Rick Scott in 2010, said Sunday that McBride suffered a heart attack Saturday while visiting family in Mount Airy, N.C.

"This was very sudden and unexpected," Sink said.

McBride had been managing partner at the prestigious Holland & Knight law firm before unsuccessfully trying to deny Bush a second term.

McBride's running mate, former state Sen. Tom Rossin of Royal Palm Beach, called McBride's death shocking and said he thought "extremely highly of him."

"He was a wonderful guy and a great Floridian who knew a lot about this state and a lot about things things were important," Rossin said. "He'll be missed. He was a real part of this state and what it's all about."

Eunice Baros, a West Palm Beach attorney and former assistant public defender, said Sunday that McBride established the West Palm Beach office of Holland & Knight 20 years ago. Baros, a college friend of McBride's at the University of Florida, was one of McBride's first hires in West Palm Beach.

Baros said she attended the wedding of McBride's daughter this summer and that he seemed in good health.

"He was a Marine, and he was highly respected," Baros said. "He was a student leader at the University of Florida. He was a patriot and he was a commanding presence."

Sink said McBride's legacy as an advocate for civil rights outshines his brief political career.

"He was always a promoter of equality," Sink said, adding that her husband championed survivors of the Rosewood racial massacre, pro bono legal work and gay rights.

Florida Democrats remembered McBride as a party advocate and public servant. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called McBride "larger than life" while Florida Democratic Chairman Rod Smith, a Palm Beach County native and Sink's running mate in 2010, said McBride was "not only a tireless advocate for the Democratic Party, but a leader and true public servant to the people of Florida."

McBride left his legal career to run for office to challenge Bush's education policy, Sink said.

"He just believed our state was going in the wrong direction under Jeb Bush," she said. "He ran a campaign based on supporting public education, supporting teachers and investing more money in education - and he was right."

Rossin said that while both Reno and McBride were well-respected in the Democratic Party, Reno had left Florida to serve as attorney general while McBride "had been here his whole life."

But Rossin said defeating Bush would have been "a real long shot at that time."

"Jeb's brother was president of the United States," Rossin said. "Jeb was already the governor."

McBride, who charmed supporters with his folksy drawl, grew up in Leesburg, in central Florida. He entered the University of Florida on a football scholarship but gave it up because of a knee injury. He temporarily dropped out of law school to volunteer with the Marines in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star.

Sink, a former state chief financial officer, said she often sought advice from McBride during her campaign against Scott, a Republican; she narrowly lost. The couple, who married in 1987 and have a son and a daughter, made their home in Thonotosassa, outside Tampa.

"Florida is no doubt a better place because people like Bill McBride commit themselves to making a difference in the lives of others," Scott said.

Rossin said he's spoken to Sink a few times and believes she might challenge Scott again in 2014.

"She's an excellent candidate," Rossin said. "I don't know how this will play into all that."

Published in The Palm Beach Post from Dec. 24, 2012 to Jan. 23, 2013