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    Dempsey Barron dead at 79

    The legislative powerhouse, whose career in Florida politics spanned three decades, suffered from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and heart disease.

    [AP file photo]
    Dempsey Barron, a Panhandle lawyer-rancher, was called one of the most powerful men in Florida government by friends and foes.

    By CRAIG BASSE and LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 8, 2001


    Former Senate President Dempsey J. Barron, once one of the state's most powerful political figures, died at his home in Tallahassee Saturday morning.

    Mr. Barron, 79, who survived a torpedoed ship in World War II, four decades of political battles and three strikes of lightning, succumbed to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and heart disease.

    The end for him came at 4:23 a.m. in his sleep. Wife Terri Jo and nurses from Big Bend Hospice were at his side. He had been bedridden for about two weeks, slipping in and out of consciousness.

    Mr. Barron spent his final weeks surrounded by friends and family who spent hours and hours recalling the political fights that made him famous.

    In a 32-year legislative career, no Floridian has exercised the kind of power that Mr. Barron displayed. He frequently clashed with governors and other legislators and usually won.

    It was a career that bridged the old and new in Florida: from the civil rights era in the late 1950s to a brief attempt at a services tax in the late 1980s; from Democratic Party dominance to the resurgence of the Republican Party; from a time when rural white lawmakers ruled the Legislature to today's urban districts that send more black, Hispanic and female legislators to the Capitol.

    Mr. Barron had a hand in writing those chapters, and many more.

    "I would imagine he did more for the state than any other senator," said former state Sen. W. D. Childers, now an Escambia County commissioner.

    "He was a hard fighter, even brutal. But he always did it for the people. And he was compassionate," Childers said. "He never lost a battle. Maybe a skirmish now and then. Nobody has ever come along that could replace him."

    "He was not afraid of anything."

    Mr. Barron lost his north Florida Senate seat in 1988 after the state's trial lawyers waged a million-dollar campaign to force him out. He had been politically weakened in an unusually public divorce fight.

    Elected from Panama City as a Democrat, he served in the state House from 1956 through 1960, then was elected to the Senate.

    He was Senate president in 1975-76. After leaving office in 1988, he switched to the Republican Party.

    For most of his tenure, Mr. Barron controlled the Senate, frequently forging coalitions of Democrats and Republicans to choose the presidents who followed him.

    His power provoked consternation among liberals and moderates and regular newspaper editorials denouncing him in Central and South Florida. Barron used to say a critical editorial in the St. Petersburg Times was worth 10,000 votes in his mostly rural panhandle district.

    Fiercely conservative on most matters, he refused to allow President Jimmy Carter to lobby him for the Equal Rights Amendment, which suffered a fatal defeat in Florida as a result.

    In the Senate, he was a regular nemesis of Gov. Reubin Askew, who served from 1971 to 1979. Their disputes were historic; so was their collaboration, as when Mr. Barron gave Askew instrumental support in reforming Florida's judiciary.

    During a particularly bitter fight in 1975, Mr. Barron directed Askew to "stay the hell out of our business."

    In 1981, Mr. Barron and his old pal Sen. Childers of Pensacola almost came to blows on the Senate floor.

    Mr. Barron also sponsored the privacy amendment to the Florida Constitution, which the state Supreme Court later interpreted to guarantee a Florida woman's right to an abortion. That outcome was seen by some as being as significant as any that might have come out of the ERA. Mr. Barron later admitted to second thoughts about his role in derailing the ERA.

    He once joined forces with Sen. Jack Gordon, a liberal Miami Democrat, to sponsor a bill that would have allowed Floridians to vote on legalizing personal use of marijuana.

    Mr. Barron always knew when the time had come to untangle a legislative impasse; without him the Senate scarcely knew how to do it. In the years after his defeat, buttons frequently appeared in the Legislature urging "Bring Back Dempsey," a tribute to his remarkable ability to force agreement on controversial issues.

    Many attributed his canny ability to the "bucket story," a tale that arose from Mr. Barron's days in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

    While serving as a seaman second class, Mr. Barron worked on a supply boat that visited islands in the Pacific. One day an officer on one of those islands expressed the need for a bucket. Mr. Barron's superior officer promised to find one and bring it on a future visit.

    As they returned to the boat, Mr. Barron reminded the officer that they had buckets aboard the supply boat. Yes, the officer noted, but bringing a bucket on the next visit would make the bucket seeker think they had gone out of their way to find one and make him eternally grateful.

    That was the way Mr. Barron ran the Senate. He got to know each senator well enough to know exactly what he or she wanted and used the information to reach legislative compromises.

    One of Mr. Barron's first political tests came as a freshman legislator. Lawmakers had voted to close public schools and other institutions as a "last resort" against desegregation.

    Gov. LeRoy Collins' veto of the bill, overridden by the Senate, was sustained by one vote in the House. Mr. Barron was the only North Florida member to side with Collins, a vote that cost him a lot of support at home.

    Though he represented a Panhandle constituency heavily opposed to desegregation, Mr. Barron survived that controversy and went on to serve two more years in the House and 28 in the Senate.

    Mr. Barron, a child of poverty, told people that going to school was more important than the person you sat next to, and that's how he voted each time the bill came up.

    He also backed Gov. Collins' fight for fair apportionment of the Legislature, another cause with only tenuous support at home.

    Years later, he instituted the single-member districting system that ultimately elected a black senator to represent what was once part of Mr. Barron's former two-member district.

    On May 6, 2001, Mr. Barron was honored at Florida State University in recognition of a $3-million contribution he and Terri Jo made to advance the care and quality of life for elder Floridians with neurological disease.

    Attorney General Bob Butterworth, FSU President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte and others recalled the days when Mr. Barron controlled the Legislature.

    A video of Mr. Barron as he ordered Askew to stay out of Senate drew laughs from the crowd, which included Askew in a front row seat.

    A tough fighter, Mr. Barron learned how to battle early in life. He was born March 5, 1922, in Andalusia, Ala., the son of a stevedore. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Panama City, and quit school in the sixth grade.

    Embarrassed to tears because he had to wear short pants, he went home to announce that he was through with studying.

    "Mama said, 'Okay, if you feel that way, just don't go to school,' " Mr. Barron recalled in 1986. "It never did matter to my parents."

    When he was old enough, he started working. His first job: digging up septic tanks in Panama City.

    "You had to get down in that stuff and put it in a bucket and pour it in the bay," he recalled. "They'd pull the bucket up and half of it would fall back on us down in the septic tanks."

    At 17, he joined the Navy and fought in World War II in the Pacific. Assigned to the vessel Chicago, he and hundreds of other young seaman were tossed into the water after torpedoes hit the ship and sent it to the bottom of the Coral Sea.

    "There was no glory," he recalled. "Just a bunch of people got killed. Just a bunch of scared kids afraid of the ocean. But I loved it. I just knew I could swim back to Florida."

    After the war, Mr. Barron learned that he could take some tests and get a high school diploma, but he had trouble with math. School officials let him count a military course as a math credit and he got a diploma.

    "It was the key to my life," he said.

    Then in his early 20s, he used the GI Bill to enroll at FSU the first year it accepted men as students and earned a degree in business administration. He later went "to the other university," the University of Florida, to earn a law degree.

    Mr. Barron lived for years on a 2,000-acre ranch in Washington County, just off Interstate 10, midway across the Panhandle. His house was filled with hunting relics, rough-hewn wood furniture and an ever-present dog.

    He also owned a 3,100-acre spread near Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he often spent time hunting and fishing during the summer. Unable to visit the ranch during the last few years because its altitude of 7,300 feet made it difficult for him to breathe, the Barrons put it up for sale last year.

    Mr. Barron once called the ranches "a leftover dream from cowboy movies when I was a little boy" and said he preferred the rougher life. Cities, he said, were "demeaning" and "lack consideration for people."

    He moved to Tallahassee about a year ago to be closer to the medical care he needed.

    Not one to dwell on the past, Mr. Barron said in a 1989 interview that he was not bitter about the campaign the previous year that led to his defeat.

    "I never look back," Mr. Barron said. "Someone has said that memories are not useful to build on, they are only useful to wallow in. I don't plan to wallow in them."

    Mr. Barron's political defeat in 1988 came just two weeks after the Florida Supreme Court ordered the release of his divorce files. His former wife, Louverne, accused him of fraudulently entering into a contract that gave Terri Jo Kennedy, then his Senate aide, a half interest in the Wyoming Ranch.

    Mr. Barron and Terri Jo, a political aide since 1974, were married in 1990. Their relationship, at times controversial, included a written contract that called for her to provide him with nursing care and other personal services that would always keep him out of a nursing home.

    "I don't want to be in one of those homes you see on TV," Mr. Barron told a Times reporter in 1987. "I've made arrangements with a person young enough to help."

    Mr. Barron had suffered from serious heart ailments since a near-death experience in 1980, but had noticeably declined since his son, Steve, 45, died of heart failure in 1998. He remained close to his daughter-in-law, Diane, and his only grandchild, Shannon. Another son, Stuart, lives in Panama City.

    When Mr. Barron died Saturday morning, his wife, now 57, was holding his hand.

    "His quality of life was good up to the end," Mrs. Barron said Saturday. "He died as well as he did anything. And he would have wanted to be in the Sunday papers."

    - Associate editor Martin Dyckman and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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