Legendary former Tampa Congressman Sam Gibbons dies at 92

Gibbons celebrated his 90th birthday in January 2010 with what the Tribune described as a "very leaked surprise birthday party" at the Tampa Bay History Center.

That's when this reporter was able to sit down with the local legend for an interview that was originally posted in two parts on this website.

Among the things we learned from our interview is that Gibbons favored ending the economic embargo against Cuba, and that though he voted for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In our interview we asked him why:

Gibbons said that he worked with members supporting the civil rights legislation. "They were so glad to have somebody from the South that was working with them. When we got to the final vote, they just said, 'Sam, you just wait and if we don't need your vote, just vote no, because we want you to come back.' So I had helped them with the amendment process, and that’s what they were worried about. They were afraid that people would amend it to death on the floor and they wouldn’t have anything when they came to the final vote … They knew they would have plenty of votes for the final vote and they did."

But in 1966, Democrats paid a steep price for those progressive pieces of legislation, and many Democrats were swept out of office. Gibbons remembers that time vividly. "There is no doubt in my mind that the Civil Rights Act disturbed a lot of people in the Democratic Party. There were lots of Republicans that voted for that Civil Rights Act. But they were not principally from the South and that's what happened. The South really went Republican after that."

As his obituaries have noted, Gibbons was a big supporter of making health care available to all Americans. Again from our story in January 2010, before President Obama got his health care reform bill passed by Congress:

Gibbons was very much involved in the decades-long battle to get comprehensive health care for all Americans. He supported LBJ in 1965 in passing Medicare, and as Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee was also involved in the unsuccessful effort by Bill Clinton in 1994 to get legislation on that front passed.

"Health care in the U.S. is the biggest economic accident of World War II," Gibbons said. "No other country on earth connects their health care with their employment, and we did it because of wage price controls during the war. The Congress only controlled cash wages, they didn't know what fringe benefits like health care were ... that's how we got in the mess we're in right now."

As Democrats ponder how to go forward on the single piece of domestic legislation that dominated President Obama's first year in office, Gibbons believes that with large majorities in both houses of Congress, they must continue, saying, "The longer we wait to make the reforms that we must eventually make, the harder it's going to be, because the interests that make a living out of the add-ons and overhead become more powerful and are harder to dislodge, so we're behind the curve in catching up with the rest of the world."

Sam Gibbons, who represented Tampa in Congress from 1962 to 1996, died Wednesday morning in Tampa. He was 92.

Both the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times have extensive biographical essays published on their websites that are strongly recommended reads to understand the depth and breadth of his time as a public servant and as a man.

After Gibbons stepped down from Congress in 1996, a spirited three-way Democratic primary took place between Pat Frank, Sandy Freedman and Jim Davis, with Davis defeating Republican Mark Sharpe, and replacing Gibbons as Tampa's representative in D.C. for the next decade.

Although Gibbons never lost an election, he came very close in '94 against Sharpe, as Republicans across the county won so many seats that they ended up taking over the House for the first time in 40 years.

After Jim Davis stepped down in 2006 to run for governor, Kathy Castor won the congressional seat. This morning, she issued this press release upon hearing of Gibbon's passing.

"Sam Gibbons was truly one of Tampa's greatest. He served his country with honor and distinction during World War II, in the state Legislature and in the United States Congress."

"He was a D-Day paratrooper, behind the front lines in Normandy on June 6, 1944. In the state Legislature, he led the effort to create the University of South Florida. In the United States Congress, he looked out for the young and old alike. He was an early backer of Head Start for children, and he was an early supporter of Medicare and hospice care for seniors. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he fought for sound trade policies to propel our nation’s economy and to find peaceful solutions to our world’s troubles. He fought for civil rights for all Americans. His legacy can be felt when our children achieve in our classrooms, when our seniors use Medicare at the doctor’s office, when our loved ones are in hospice care and when students and researchers make a mark on campus at the University of South Florida. Tampa would not be what it is today without the work and dedication of Sam Gibbons."

The sentiments have been bipartisan from those who knew or worked with him. Today, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said, "As a native Tampa resident, I am grateful for his contributions and positive impact on Tampa Bay."

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