Bill Lehman

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Former Congressman Bill Lehman dies

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Lehman, a legendary figure of South Florida politics considered a visionary on racial issues and public transit, died today.

Lehman, who was 91, died at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

A used-car salesman, teacher, school board chairman and powerful politician who wielded control over transportation issues in the U.S. for 10 years, Lehman was remembered by friends and former staffers as a compassionate soul and voice of progressive moderation.

"A person like this can only come along in a community once in a century, twice in a century if you're lucky," said John Schelble, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who was Lehman's press spokesman. "He was truly colorblind."

Lehman was born Oct. 5, 1913, in Selma, Ala., the son of candy factory owners. He graduated from the University of Alabama, and married the former Joan Feibelman in 1939. They became the parents of three children -- two sons, and a daughter who died of a brain tumor in 1979.

He spent 30 years as a used car dealer, calling himself "Alabama Bill" in advertisements, before he got into politics. Lehman, who had also become a school teacher, was elected to the Dade County School Board in 1966 and became its chairman in 1971. His first election to Congress to represent a Northeast Dade district came in 1972.

The Biscayne Park Democrat was known for his low-key manner, for the Southern drawl he never lost -- and for his political power.

In the years when the Democrats held sway in Congress, he rose to a position of great influence, a member of the so-called "college of cardinals" in the House. He controlled billions of dollars for transportation as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee overseeing highways, seaports and mass-transit systems.

Lehman was an unabashed liberal who voted against a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, against military aid to the Nicaraguan contras and against sending troops to the Persian Gulf.

But he won respect among conservative Cuban exiles in 1988 when he went to Cuba and negotiated the release of three political prisoners.

It wasn't his first effort for victims of political repression: In 1981, he negotiated the release of a political prisoner in Argentina, and in 1984, he smuggled a synthetic heart valve to a young patient in a hospital in the Soviet Union. He was also a strong advocate for Haitian refugees.

"I'm a congressman," he told an aide inquiring about the safety of venturing into the Soviet Union. "If they catch me, what are they going to do?"

Despite his power, Lehman retained his common touch. He was a breakfast regular for years at Jimmy's restaurant on Northeast 125th Street in North Miami.

Surgery for jaw cancer in 1983 left Lehman's speech slurred. But he stayed in Congress for another decade, until his surprise decision in 1992 not to seek re-election when his decision to retire came as he faced a Democratic primary challenge from Gwen Margolis, then the president of the Florida Senate -- and the troubling possibility of being thrown into the same district as a longtime congressional colleague, South Dade Democrat Dante Fascell, when congressional district boundaries were redrawn.

But the congressman said he made up his mind for health reasons: He had "a sudden realization" that a disabling stroke he suffered in 1991 had made him a less effective legislator.
Published in the Miami Herald on Mar. 16, 2005
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