Former lawmaker, Florida public health icon Sam Bell dies

After a stunning political defeat, he became one of Florida's fiercest champions of children's health.

Sam Bell, a well-known political and lobbying fixture and part of a Democratic political dynasty in Florida, died Tuesday night during emergency surgery. He was 83.

The office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Bell’s stepdaughter, put out a statement saying that Bell died after an “unexpected health complication.” 

Bell spent 14 years in the Legislature, where he was the top budget writer in the House and was on the cusp of becoming House Speaker when he was upset by a Republican in 1988 — a precursor to the GOP wave that would flip the Legislature in the next decade.

Bell did leave a legacy, especially regarding Florida’s health care policy, where he became known as a fierce champion of children’s issues and public health. To that end, Bell helped establish the Florida Healthy Kids program. At the time, it was a first-of-its-kind program in the state and nation to provide low-income children access to subsidized health insurance policies.

Bell also was a driving force behind the establishment of the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

He is the “core foundational giant to whom I owe much of what I’ve done, been ‘allowed’ to (do),” said Jay Wolfson, Associate Dean for Health Policy at USF’s medical school.

Bell has three children, including lobbyist Doug Bell. He married former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor.

Safety Net Alliance of Florida President and COO Lindy Kennedy called Bell a visionary.

“Thirty years ago, long before anyone thought it could be done, he recognized the statewide need for sophisticated newborn emergency care. Sam’s commitment to that cause is a major reason why Florida has an oft-emulated coordinated system of advanced neonatal intensive care units across the state. Many of these programs are now nationally recognized for their excellence and innovation,” Kennedy said in a statement to Florida Politics.

“Florida needs more people like Sam advocating for children’s health and welfare. He will certainly be missed.”

After Bell’s unexpected political defeat, he watched as fellow Volusia County lawmaker Thomas Kent “T. K.” Wetherell became House speaker in 1990.

Recalling his loss in 2013, Bell lamented, “I think I could have made a difference, and I regret not having that opportunity.”

After his defeat at the polls, Bell remained in The Process as a lobbyist. As staff director of the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee for 10 years, Jim DeBeaugrine said he often was visited by lobbyists seeking money for their clients.

“There were some; I dreaded their visits. There were some; I enjoyed their visits. I enjoyed his visits. He had a strong reputation, and he was lobbying a Republican Legislature by this time,” DeBeaugrine, himself now a lobbyist, told Florida Politics Wednesday. “But he had a very good reputation on both sides of the aisle.”

After 40 years in The Process, Bell stepped away from Tallahassee in 2013 and became a fellow at the USF Department of Health Policy.

His presence remained in the House Office Building, where he worked as a member for 14 years. Photographs of a young Bell can be seen hanging in the hallways.

Bell is the subject of the 1983 photograph “The Unknown Legislator.” Iconic among Florida politicos, the Don Dughi photograph shows Bell on the House floor with a brown bag over his head. There are no openings in the bag for his eyes, only a tiny cutout for his mouth.

Bell jokingly wore the bag after telling lawmakers he’d go home for the remainder of the 1983 Legislative Session if they agreed to pass the last bill in a series of “sunset” bills he had sponsored. After the bill passed and a brief recess, Bell returned to the House Chamber with the bag over his head.

Christine Jordan Sexton

Tallahassee-based health care reporter who focuses on health care policy and the politics behind it. Medicaid, health insurance, workers’ compensation, and business and professional regulation are just a few of the things that keep me busy.


  • Peggy Smith

    March 16, 2023 at 12:24 pm

    It was not the medical school that Sam Bell helped to find. It was USF’s College of Public Health.

  • Mary Ann Stiles

    March 16, 2023 at 3:51 pm

    We have lost a very special person in the State of Florida. My heart goes out to Betty, Kathy and the family. I recall, during the late 70s and early 80s breaking through the lobby ranks as a woman lobbyist for the business community at AIF, an almost unheard of feat at the time, his support and encouragement during the tough times when I was taking on the male lobbyists who ruled supreme at the time. Sam will be missed and Betty, I love you girlfriend.

    • Anne Mackenzie

      March 16, 2023 at 11:27 pm

      so well sid Mary Ann

Comments are closed.


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704

Sign up for Sunburn