George Sheldon was a special individual – a throwback who linked and transcended the generations. A thinker, a progressive a compassionate man who had such a yearning for public service he dedicated his entire life from University onward – 50 years to serving this state and nation. He also more than any single individual can be called personally to me, my political mentor.
Reubin Askew, arguably the greatest Governor in the history of our state served as George’s political mentor. George first linked up with Askew when he was a State Senator and continued in the Governor’s office after he assumed the office in early 1971. Elected to the State House from a sprawling multi-member Tampa area district in 1974 while still in his twenties, George quickly emerged as a leader on serious policy coming from a progressive perspective. Rising up the ranks of the House in the “Golden Era of Florida Politics,” Sheldon was able to bridge the ideological gap and cultivate working relationships and friendships with the likes of Dempsey Barron, the conservative Panama City Senator who dominated that chamber’s internal workings for two decades and was largely opposed to Askew’s legislative programs. His willingness to work across boundaries made him one of the most respected statesman in Florida. Sheldon’s guiding principles and values were inflexible but yet, his ability to create consensus was unparalleled.
As a House member George chaired the House Regulatory Reform Committee where he led the initiative for the Nursing Home Bill of Rights. In 1980 he chaired the (Senator Edward) Kennedy Presidential Campaign for Florida. His 1982 race for Congress in a newly drawn, Republican-leaning district just north of Tampa attracted an array of progressive talent from around the country to work for him. Sheldon, as I personally learned many years later always had a way of attracting motivated, young, idealists to his side.
Sheldon’s ability to work across ideological barriers, but still maintain his guiding principles and values system is a rarity in public service. Throughout the 1980s and 1990’s without public office, George used his connections and genial working relationships with those of different persuasions to build support for the causes he cared about. He was one of the most effective and forceful advocates on environmental and children’s issues in the state. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as Deputy Attorney General under Bob Butterworth, George continued his advocacy and stood tall for consumers and those who were victims of corporate excess, including working diligently on settlement talks in the landmark tobacco lawsuit Attorney General Butterworth had filed.
In 2000, Sheldon ran statewide for Commissioner of Education, winning the Democratic nomination over a sitting State Representative in a landslide but falling short in the General Election. It was in this campaign, I truly got to work with George for the first time. I had met him several times prior to that campaign, but as a starry-eyed, idealistic twenty-something, helping him run for office on a platform that included empowering teachers, parents and students and opposing the recently enacted school voucher plans. Sensible reform of a failing education system was Sheldon’s mantra. We lost the election on a day when Florida was at the center of national attention but raised awareness and consciousness on issues while initiating a new group of advocates.
Following election defeat, George was quickly plunged into the 2000 Presidential Election recount as one of the leading legal minds and most respected Democrats in the state. My role in the recount which was more prominent than perhaps my age should have allowed owed itself largely to my relationship with Sheldon, and the trust and faith he put in me. The next two years,Sheldon played a critical role with me professionally, helping me cultivate new relationships and bringing me on-board Pete Peterson’s Gubernatorial Campaign as the Political Director before George himself decided to run for office in 2002.
George’s run for Attorney General in 2002 when General Butterworth was term-limited came late but in that campaign he laid down several important markers that would shape the discussions around the office in the future. In fact, I would honestly say Sheldon’s rhetoric impacted eventual winner Charlie Crist’s conduct in the office – Crist a Republican threw off the desires of many in his party and used the Attorney General’s post as a place to advocate for Florida’s consumers and citizens, rather than a partisan office. In 2013, when Pam Bondi, the state’s Attorney General was conducting business in office like a partisan, Sheldon returned from Washington D.C. and a lucrative appointment in the Obama Administration to challenge her. We’ll get back to that in a few minutes.
Following the 2002 election, George spent time as the Associate Dean of the St Thomas University Law School before returning to government serving Crist, now the Governor as Director of the Department of Children and Families. In this role, Sheldon was credited with cleaning up a scandal-plagued agency and restoring trust in human and social services in the state. Following this success, President Obama appointed Sheldon, the Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families which is within HHS. In this period, George proved an invaluable resource and mentor to me as I branched out from doing political campaigns exclusively to other things. I was growing up from being a campaign kid who made his living exclusively off candidates, campaigns and issue-advocacy groups to a more diverse and thoughtful person. Sheldon’s role in my evolution was invaluable and irreplaceable.
As mentioned above, Sheldon returned to Florida in 2013 to run for Attorney General. For me personally after spending most of my life working exclusively on political campaigns and advocacy efforts, I had branched out to do other things after the 2006 election cycle. When George returned to Florida, I hadn’t properly worked on a political campaign since 2008 though, I had volunteered on various efforts and was writing extensively about Florida government and politics at the time.
Eventually I assumed the role of Deputy Campaign Manager on the effort. Attorney General Bondi had from our perspective skewed the role of a chief law enforcement officer for the state and we ran a campaign aggressively not only on progressive principles but also on what the proper and effective role of the state’s chief law enforcement officer is. After winning the nomination in a highly contested primary, our effort fell short in the General Election. But George had connected with a new generation of Floridians and helped shaped the debate and discussion about issues related to consumers and the citizenry that helped to formulate the markers we hold our officials and government to in the era of Trump.
A lifetime of service to Florida and its people, and a very special role in mentoring and growing me personally describes George Sheldon. He will truly be missed.