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Politics

He was born to be serious

The grandson of a pioneering Republican, Bill McCollum was mature at an early age.

By DAN DEWITT
Published November 19, 2006


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BROOKSVILLE - As a teenager, Bill McCollum made an unforgettable impression just walking to school.

"He wore a long coat and carried a newspaper, and he wore a hat, like a fedora. I remember my dad remarked, 'That boy looks like a 50-year-old man.' " said Bob Martinez, publisher of Old Brooksville in Photos and Stories. "He was very serious."

So McCollum's political success is no surprise to acquaintances from his hometown. McCollum, elected Florida Attorney General two weeks ago, is believed to be the first Hernando County native to hold statewide office since 1913, A.C. Croom's last year as elected state comptroller.

McCollum, 62, was born in Brooksville and lived in his grandparents' house on Liberty Street until he graduated from Hernando High in 1962. Though he has not been a county resident for more than 30 years, he frequently visits his father, Ira McCollum, on the family's 60-acre farm near Interstate 75.

"I still own property in Hernando County and ... I always talk about my roots there," said McCollum, 62.

He also kept in touch with many of his friends in Brooksville, all of whom describe the young McCollum the same way:

He was studious but too friendly and engaging to be called a nerd; he was so mature that he had the mannerisms and interests of an adult in grade school; and he was drenched in right-wing politics of his grandfather, Clyde Lockhart, one of Florida's pioneering Republicans.

McCollum's continued loyalty to pro-business conservatism has raised questions about his suitability to be attorney general. The job demands sometimes opposing the banking, insurance and pharmaceutical interests McCollum has worked to protect during his 20 years as a U.S. Representative from Longwood, near Orlando.

"It is very important that attorney generals work for their constituents and to remember that their constituents are not corporations but the people on the bottom of the economic ladder," said Patrick Burns, of the False Claims Act Legal Center in Washington D.C. "We're going to be watching Bill McCollum very carefully."

McCollum has pledged to do what the job requires, and his old friends believe him, even those who don't agree with him politically.

"What I know about Bill is that he is honest, and I don't think he would ever deliberately mislead anyone," said Judy Whitehead, a Brooksville real estate appraiser and contemporary of McCollum who said she is politically moderate while McCollum is "very, very conservative."

That came from his grandfather, who was sometimes called "Colonel" as a term of respect and who closely resembled KFC's Colonel Sanders.

"If you put a white goatee on him, you might mix them up," said Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason, one of McCollum's closest childhood friends.

In 1944, when Bill McCollum was born, Hernando County had two registered Republicans. Lockhart, a lawyer who represented Hernando State Bank - now SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast - was one of them.

For much of the 1950s and '60s, he served as the state Republican Party's general counsel, his son said.

The McCollums moved in with the Lockharts about the time Bill McCollum's mother died, when he was 6 years old.

From that time on, he was constantly exposed to his grandfather's high standards, Mason said.

"The dinner table talk at his grandfather's house was always on community issues," Mason said. "(McCollum) had a finely tuned sense of responsibility even as a youngster."

"He was basically a polite, well-groomed man by the time he was 8 years old," said Don Varn, 57, who lived across the street from the Lockharts.

"He wasn't your average kid by any means."

McCollum said the stories of his strict upbringing and serious nature have been overstated. Lockhart, who as a young man had worked as a high school principal, encouraged rather than demanded that McCollum read books and talk politics.

"My grandfather was a great teacher with a large law library and a personal library, and as his only grandson, I benefited a lot from that," he said.

But "I played games ... I was just like any other kid in the neighborhood."

His father, Ira McCollum, 91, remembers him as an avid hunter and fisherman and - especially after Ira McCollum and Lockhart bought what was then a 3,000 acre ranch on Lockhart Road in the 1950s - an expert horseman.

"He's one of the best horsemen you'd ever run across," he said. "And he was always a leader."

At Hernando High, besides being named the "most studious" member of his senior class, he was also class president. At the University of Florida, he organized support for Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and started a conservative newspaper.

After receiving his law degree, he served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Navy, and, in 1980, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Over the next 20 years, he compiled a pro-business record that was harshly criticized this election season by his Democratic opponent, Walter "Skip" Campbell of Broward County.

McCollum protected banks by trying to make it more difficult for customers to file bankruptcy to escape credit card debt, critics said, and attempted to give insurance companies greater power to share customer information.

He worked as a lobbyist for AstraZeneca, a British drug company that has been investigated for Medicare fraud.

In 1998, he also tried to gut the strongest legal tool to fight Medicare fraud, the False Claims Act, Burns said. This law encourages whistle-blowers by allowing them to share court-ordered fraud repayments. McCollum's bill, which failed, "was the most serious threat to the false claims act ever," Burns said.

McCollum said he filed it because the threat of reports under the False Claims Act was being used to harass medical providers. His bill encouraged changes in federal policy that helped correct the problem, he said.

As attorney general - and a member of the Florida Cabinet - he will also have a role in protecting the environment, with powers that include approving environmentally sensitive land purchases and resolving disputes over changes to land use plans, said Charles Lee, of Florida Audubon.

On some national matters, "he has been on the wrong side of the issue," Lee said. But his environmental records is stronger, Lee said, on questions concerning the state and, especially his district. For example, he worked to have the Wekiva River named as a federal wild and scenic river.

"Bill's a conservative, but he's no slash-and-burn guy," Mason said.

McCollum said his own priorities include clamping down on sexual predators who use the Internet and - no surprise to his old friends in Brooksville - running his office responsibly and productively.

"Maybe it's just being more efficient in giving legal opinions to people who request them," he said.

"I want to make people proud."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352)754-6116. Times correspondent Roger Landers also contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 19, 2006, 08:26:50]


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