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Ex-Florida Democratic leader Charlie Whitehead dies

Charlie Whitehead, who was chairman of the Florida Democratic Party as its long heyday faded in the 1980s, has died.

Whitehead was a gregarious and well-liked party leader who was a long-time car dealer in Panama City at a time when Democrats were as dominant in state politics as Republicans are today.

For part of his tenure as chairman, his Republican counterpart was Tommy Thomas, who also was a Panama City car dealer (Thomas sold Chevrolets; Whitehead sold Fords).

"He wasn't just a Democrat or a Republican. He was a Floridian, Mr. Integrity,'' said former four-term state attorney general Bob Butterworth, who sought Whitehead's advice when he first ran for statewide office in 1986. "He considered his role as party chairman to be a public service. He did it with dignity, grace and professionalism and he made you feel good to be in public service. He saw it as a calling.''

Whitehead had not been active in statewide politics for some time, but he endorsed Charlie Crist as an independent U.S. Senate candidate in 2010.

In a 2004 interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Whitehead traced the start of his party's decline to the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.

"Everyone he touched in Florida got elected, and it started to snowball. He built the Republican Party in Florida," Whitehead told the newspaper. "From Pensacola to Jacksonville, that's where he really killed us. Those are strong military areas, and he was strong on the military."

-- With reporting by Lucy Morgan, Tampa Bay Times staff writer