Tampa Bay remembers kindness, optimism of president
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published June 6, 2004
Bob Martinez was the Democratic mayor of Tampa in 1983 and considering a switch to the GOP when business brought him to Ronald Reagan's White House.
Martinez suspected that the president, who had once switched parties himself, would apply a little old-fashioned lobbying to try to persuade the mayor to become a Republican. And sure enough, Reagan broached the subject.
"I'd like you to consider changing political parties," Reagan told him bluntly. The president smiled and joked, "Believe me, it's not going to be painful."
Martinez, who later became Florida governor, said, "He's kind of the top recruiter. So you can't beat that. You don't forget."
Martinez eventually joined the GOP.
As word of Reagan's death came Saturday, Tampa Bay area politicians, political operatives and others who met him remembered a kind man, quick with a joke, who was as easy with ordinary folk as he was with the powerful.
For Martinez, Reagan led a revolution that brought a conservative brand of politics and ideology to the mainstream.
"He took a conservative outlook national, and it's been there ever since," Martinez said. "And that's clearly been a great benefit to the nation."
David Prior of St. Petersburg recalled the tongue-tying moment he met Reagan in 1980 when the candidate visited Pinellas on a campaign swing. Prior, a college student and member of Youth for Reagan, waited for Reagan in a hotel hall.
"I had about a hundred things I wanted to tell him," said Prior, later active in Pinellas GOP politics. "I wanted to tell him how to beat (Jimmy) Carter. I wanted to talk about national defense. But when he walked by, all I could manage to tell him was, "God bless you, Gov. Reagan.' I don't know where that came from."
Reagan returned the greeting.
Margie Kincaid, chair of the Hillsborough Republican Party for 18 years ending in 2003, helped campaign for Reagan in 1980.
"I remember his warmth," she said. "I was so impressed with his sense of humor and warmth. He never seemed to meet a stranger."
Ordinary people fondly recalled Reagan as a man of integrity who took on communism during the Cold War.
"He took on challenges that changed the course of the world," said Linda Alfonso, 56, who works at a gift shop in Tampa. "He was what I call the cup-is-half-full kind of president. He was always optimistic."
Even Democrats acknowledge the Reagan charm.
"As a Democrat, some Republicans are going to be loathe to hear this," said Victor DiMaio, a Democratic consultant in Tampa. "But I see a lot to compare Reagan with Clinton in terms of the charisma that both men shared. It's a rare thing."
Many area politicians came of age politically as Reagan swept to office. Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party, said Reagan was the first president he ever voted for.
Bedinghaus made the pilgrimage to the Reagan presidential library in California in 1996 and brought back a memento he keeps on his desk. It's a sign that says, "It CAN be done." Reagan kept a similar sign on his desk that he used to help twist congressional arms.
"I think people were drawn to him whether they agreed with him or not because he had the courage of his convictions," Bedinghaus said.
Frank Llende, 40, a former Tampa resident, plans a visit to the Reagan library this year. He wants to see if the library has his old Bucs cap.
Llende met Reagan in 1979 or 1980 at the old Al Lopez Field in Tampa when he was a 10th-grader and a member of the Young Republicans. He and other students appeared on stage with Reagan.
Llende gave Reagan his cap, and after the Secret Service checked it carefully, the candidate lifted it to his head. The next day, Llende met Reagan again at a reception, and Reagan remembered Llende's name.
"It just struck me that it was the beginning of his fabulous political life," Llende said. "I thought: He'll be a legend some day and I'm so happy I met him."
- Times staff writers Jay Cridlin and Rodney Thrash contributed to this report.