Former Congressman Sam Gibbons (D-Tampa) passed away on Wednesday. Gibbons was part of generation of Floridians whose selfless sacrifice and vision moved Florida and the nation forward. Gibbons was elected to Congress from a new Tampa based district in 1962 after doing battle in the State Legislature with the infamous “Pork Chop Gang” of conservative rural Democrats. Gibbons defeated conservative opposition over and over again (in both Democratic primaries and General Elections) during his tenure and finally retired from Congress in 1996. He was a veteran of D-Day, a true American hero and a voice of great reason, thought and influence in Congress.
Gibbons was appointed to the Ways and Means Committee, reserved largely for party loyalists after the 1968 election, where he had beaten back conservative opposition in the Democratic Primary. That was the year of Ed Gurney’s win over Leroy Collins and George Wallace winning a majority of Florida counties for President. A reactionary time called for a true champion of the people, and that is what Gibbons was.
Prior to the 1968 election, Gibbons had been an important figure in the passage of Great Society legislation on the House floor. He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in conservative Tampa (which was the home to Sumter Lowry perhaps the greatest demagogue on the racial issue in Florida, and a man whose name is on the local Zoological Park) but courageously supported the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed after Selma, and the 1966 Open Housing Bill.
Through the years he worked diligently on tax issues. In the 1980s he became an important voice for free trade on the committee that determined the fate of any tax or tariff related legislation. His voice was critical in the passage of NAFTA in 1993, and a few months later, Gibbons found himself as the Chairman of the most important committee in Washington, after Rep. Dan Rostenkowski had been indicted. Gibbons was thrust into a leadership role in the fight on President Clinton’s Health Care proposals.
In November 1994, the Democrats lost the majority after 40 years in power. When the new congressional majority in 1995 proposed onerous cuts to welfare, Gibbons bravely led the Democratic opposition. Spending hours on the floor, grooming younger members and educating arrogant freshmen Republicans about history, Gibbons became perhaps the senior leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
On the Republican budget, Gibbons fought tooth and nail to expose the hypocrisy of the majority and played a major role in shaping the message for the Democrats, a message which would lead directly to President Clinton’s reelection. So pivotal was Gibbons in 1995 and 1996, that when he decided to call it quits, the President himself tried to talk him out of it.
Gibbons time in Congress also saw remarkable growth for his hometown of Tampa, which benefited from his influence in congress in the way of federal programs and projects. Gibbons worked to get money for new highways, and buildings in the area including the completion of I-75 south of Tampa and money for Tampa International Airport air-side/land-side concept, the first such terminal in the country. He also helped secure federal funding for the new Sunshine Skyway which was built after the tragic tanker accident in 1980 which saw the collapse of one of the spans and the death of 39 people.
Florida and the nation benefited from Gibbons skill, leadership and compassion. He will be missed.