Chris Hand: Jim King’s legacy still holding court

After Jim King became Florida Senate President in late 2002, he did something that today might seem radical on both sides of the aisle: he elevated members of the other party.

Just a few weeks earlier, Florida Republicans had reached a new zenith in their political ascendancy. For the first time in modern history, not a single Democrat would serve in the governorship, Cabinet, or legislative majority.

Though Democrats had won the last two U.S. Senate elections, and had battled to a virtual draw in the 2000 presidential contest, Republicans now fully controlled the state agenda.

And then Jim King went and asked four Democrats to join his Senate leadership team.

In announcing the appointments of Rod Smith, Walter “Skip” Campbell, Al Lawson and Steve Geller as committee chairs, King cited productivity.

“There is some very good talent in the Democratic caucus and we as a majority party should not let it go to waste,” he said. “I am hopeful that with this blending of bipartisan talent, we will build a united Senate, committed and ready to tackle the issues facing us these next two years.”

King’s action was not merely symbolic. Smith was given the huge task of transitioning court funding from counties to the state as part of a new constitutional mandate. Campbell was placed in charge of finance and tax policy in a challenging budget year. Geller would oversee comprehensive planning and Lawson would focus on natural resources.

King immediately faced dissent. “Jim caught a lot of flak,” Smith remembers. “But he didn’t care. He wanted to send a bipartisan signal.”

Smith recalls that one former senator “threw a fit” about King’s efforts to reach across the aisle. The Senate president’s response was a classic Jim King one-liner: “Thank you for reminding me why nobody here likes you.”

King’s bipartisanship was contagious. “He reinforced my view that not all good or bad ideas belong to a single political party,” said Smith. “Jim built bipartisan coalitions – not because that was his only route to 21 votes, but because he felt the institution was better served by consensus.”

Over the course of his legislative career, King’s bipartisan approach paid dividends on the issues that mattered most to him, such as the passage of Florida’s death-with-dignity law, protection of the St. Johns River and reform of education funding formulas. But as much as King was committed to bipartisanship, Smith says he was even more dedicated to preventing Senate politics from becoming personal. King’s chief allies in that effort were friendship and humor.

“Jim believed that once you knew someone well – about their family, friends, and interests– it would be much harder for you to be personal in your politics with them,” Smith explained. “So he would take diametrically opposed people out to dinner and drinks so we could develop genuine friendships. It worked. We got to know each other better, and we bonded over the fact that we could neither stay out as late as Jim nor look as fresh as he did the next morning. He was the poster child for Alka-Seltzer.”

King also employed what Smith called a “hilarious sense of humor” to defuse tension in the Senate process. His blend of camaraderie and wit earned him close friends, who were crestfallen at King’s death from cancer in July 2009. They still think about him often, and gather each year to honor his memory with storytelling and laughter.

Despite King’s bipartisanship, he did on at least one occasion ask Smith to become a Republican. The former prosecutor responded with Jim King-like humor. “I have been a Democrat and a Southern Baptist all my life,” Smith told King. “While I may be a poor example of both, I’m not switching from either.”

With the circuit court recently approving a new Senate map that creates a competitive North Central Florida district, some have approached Rod Smith about rejoining the Florida Senate. While he is undecided, if Smith does run and is elected, expect him to honor what he says is King’s greatest legacy.

“Jim King taught me how the legislative process should work,” said Smith. “He led with an open hand, not a closed fist. He simply wanted to work with others to make things happen.”


Chris Hand served as Chief of Staff at the City of Jacksonville and as Press Secretary for U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. He and Graham are writing a book on effective citizen participation in government. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Phil Ammann

Phil Ammann is a Tampa Bay-area journalist, editor and writer. With more than three decades of writing, editing, reporting and management experience, Phil produced content for both print and online, in addition to founding several specialty websites, including His broad range includes covering news, local government, entertainment reviews, marketing and an advice column. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in Tampa with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Martin A. Dyckman

    January 13, 2016 at 9:26 am

    A deserved tribute to Jim King and well said, His was the kind of leadership Florida needed–and needs even more now–regardless of party.

  • Jon Shebel

    January 13, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    A great and true tribute to Jim and to the Democrat Senators he chose to be part of his team. Prior to Jim’s approach, Speakers Fred Schultz and Dick Pettigrew took a similar approach with Republican Minority Leader Don Reed. All majority (Democrat) meetings included Reed or his representative. Reed sent a list of bills to the Rules Committee each day and at the direction of the Speakers those bills were always placed on or moved up on the Calendar. This is the way the Florida Legislature should function!!!!!!!!!! So, what happened????? It’s called “POLITICAL CONSULTANTS””!!! Since they evolved in the process, the animosity has increased each election as they create a “hate climate” to convince candidates in both parties that they need to “raise tons of money” which pad the pockets of the consultants. It would be nice to return to the days before the “consultants” when most worked together for the good of all citizens of the state. I doubt many of the outcomes of most legislative races would change if all the consultants disappeared today. When there is cooperation and friendship between the leaders of both parties, it closes out the extremes and brings about “good things”. The spotlight needs to be shined where “the money in campaigns ends up….THE CONSULTANTS”!!!!!! Campaign reform needs to start with THE CONSULTANTS”!!!!!!!

  • Doug Wiles

    January 13, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Thanks for reminding us, Chris, of what leadership, politics and the political process should be. One of my highlights as a Democratic member of the Florida House was working with Jim King on 3 county delegations where his priority was always doing the right thing.

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