State Sen. Jim King dies after battle with pancreatic cancer
"It’s hard to imagine that spark’s gone,” said former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney
By Matt Galnor
Story updated at 8:23 AM on Tuesday, Jul. 28, 2009
State Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican whose blend of deal-making and humor made him among the state’s most powerful and popular legislators, died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 69.
King, a former Senate president, was a longtime advocate for the St. Johns River and in 2004 led the change to the state public school funding formula that local officials had been trying to change for decades, saying it long favored South Florida.
King’s negotiating skill put him in the middle of the state’s lasting policy debates over the past two decades, but friends and colleagues say he will be remembered just as much for his gregarious personality and sense of humor.
When tensions ran high in the Legislature, a few words or a one-liner from King would lighten things up, said former Florida House Speaker John Thrasher, an Orange Park Republican and close friend of King.
“Jim took it seriously, but he knew the right kind of attitude to display at the right time,” Thrasher said. “He was putting it on a less personal basis, getting people to laugh at themselves sometimes.”
King was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May, but in June was thought to be cancer-free. The outlook changed again this month when his family announced the cancer had spread to nearby organs, and King was put in hospice care last week.
“He was such a nice, fun-loving guy, it’s hard to imagine that spark’s gone,” said former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, a longtime friend. “But he sure made a mark.”
King was elected to the Florida House in 1986 and then won a special election to the Senate in 1999. He served as president of the Senate from 2002 to 2004.
Although Northeast Florida has had House speakers and Senate presidents, King’s leadership roles combined with his 23 years in the Legislature made him one of the most powerful legislators the area has ever had, Delaney said.
King was known for his independence and was not always in lock-step with party officials. He and Gov. Jeb Bush, a fellow Republican and ally, squared off publicly in 2003 over caps on medical malpractice suits — a battle King won with a $500,000 cap on damages, double what Bush and many Republicans wanted.
He and Bush were also on opposite sides in the nationally watched right-do-die debate involving Terri Schiavo. In 2003, King was among those who voted to give Bush the power to keep Schiavo alive with a feeding tube. Two years later, King played a key role in leading a group of Republicans who blocked legislation that would have ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube be reinserted. She died in 2005.
"As solid as a Republican as he was, he was most interested in things that seemed fair,” Delaney said.
And at the end of the debate, King was a guy everyone gravitated toward.
“It was impossible not to like Jim King, a man with a larger than life personality and a passion for public service to match it,” Bush said in a statement.
“You couldn’t help but love Jim King. He lived every day with such enthusiasm and joy,” Gov. Charlie Crist said in a news release.
King was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1939 and moved with his family to Florida in 1945. He became the first in his family to graduate from high school and eventually earned a master’s degree from Florida State University.
King was an ardent supporter of the university and his final resting place will be the Jim King Life Sciences building on campus in Tallahassee.
Early in his business career, King struggled and was twice on the verge of bankruptcy, he told the Times-Union in 2000. But in 1969, he borrowed $13,000 against his home to start an employment services agency.
The move paid off and King built a thriving firm in a growing field. He sold the business for more than $15 million in 1997.
King then devoted his professional life to politics and was one the strongest advocates for preserving and providing access to the St. Johns River.
Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton said he leaned on King heavily to help leverage state dollars for the river and King was among the most influential friends of the St. Johns.
“I will be forever grateful to him for his unwavering dedication to improving and protecting our city’s most treasured natural resource,” Peyton said.
King was essential in drafting the River Accord, a 10-year, $700 million plan to restore the health of the river, St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon said.
King made the health of the river a priority, and that sent a message to other politicians who didn’t always think that way, Armingeon said.
King and his wife, Linda, spent time at their vacation home on the river in Welaka, and King was a fixture at the AT&T Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament. King emceed the tournament for more than 25 years and would sit perched high above the dock and watch the boats come in, providing running commentary.
“It was like a 10-hour Jay Leno or something,” Delaney said.
On Thursday, Sisters Creek Marina Park was renamed in King’s honor.
As much as King will be remembered for his own accomplishments, Thrasher said he’ll cherish King’s unselfishness and credits King for his own political rise.
King made an unsuccessful run for House speaker early in his tenure and had another shot at it in the late 1990s. Instead, King stepped aside and Thrasher won the post, Thrasher said.
“But for Jim King, I’d never have been speaker of the house,” Thrasher said.
King eventually won a top spot of his own, ascending to the Senate presidency in 2002.
If there’s a major public policy issue in the state over the last 20 years, King’s prints are on it, said state Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat.
“It wasn’t that he was trying to get in the middle of it, people just looked to him for leadership,” said Hill, who served seven years in the state House with King and another seven in the Senate.
King was always the one person in the room who’d be able to find piece of an issue to build a compromise on, Hill said. It was King’s passionate speech on the Senate floor that helped convince Democrats to vote for this year’s sharply debated budget.
King’s negotiating skills were on full display for what observers — and King himself at the time — call his biggest political victory: changing the formula that determines public school funding in Florida. The formula relied heavily on cost of living and resulted in South Florida counties receiving more per students than counties in the rest of the state.
Local legislators had tried to change it for years, to no avail.
King pushed it through in 2004 and told The Times-Union it was one of his biggest accomplishments, both because of how it was orchestrated and because it was morally right, he said. The change brought tens of millions of dollars to Duval County schools.
“He was the only person who could change it, and he did,” Delaney said. “I still don’t know how he got it through.”
King, whose district stretched from Nassau County to Volusia County, would not have been able to seek another term in 2010 because of term limits.
King is survived by his wife Linda, daughters Monta Bolles of Tampa and Laurie Anne Dolan of Gainesville, and three grandchildren.
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