Former U.S. representative Sam Gibbons, a Florida Democrat who helped shepherd War on Poverty legislation at the start of his congressional career and briefly ascended to the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee near the end of his 17 terms on Capitol Hill, died Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. He was 92.
His son, Washington lobbyist Clifford Gibbons, confirmed the death but said he did not know the immediate cause.
Gibbons, a gangly former Army paratrooper who landed at Normandy during World War II, said he pursued a legislative career largely because of the carnage he witnessed in battle.
In the U.S. House from 1963 to 1997, he worked most ardently on extending trade and open markets. “A world bound together by the ties of trade is a world strongly inclined toward economic growth and peace," he once said.
Gibbons served Tampa as it grew from its industrial boomtown past into a thriving metropolis. As one of the few liberals in the Deep South, he delivered key votes for President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program.
In 1965, Johnson tapped Gibbons, then only a second-term congressman, to be his floor manager for the War on Poverty bills. In that position, he helped wrangle the votes needed to authorize social programs including the Head Start education initiative for low-income children.
Gibbons worked closely with Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to win $1.75 billion in anti-poverty appropriations.
Gibbons voted against the landmark civil rights acts of 1964 and 1968 that outlawed discrimination in public accommodations and housing, respectively, but was one of a handful of Southerners who supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1964, he voted in favor of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that intensified U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. In later years, he said he had been misled by Pentagon officials about the war and called it “the sorriest vote I ever cast." In the early 1990s, he opposed entry by the United States in the Persian Gulf War.
As he ascended to greater seniority, Gibbons mounted an underdog challenge against Majority Whip Thomas “Tip" O’Neill, D-Mass., for the position of majority leader in 1973. Gibbons quickly realized he had made a strategic error and withdrew his candidacy against the popular O’Neill, who later became House speaker.
Nor did Gibbons become a consistently influential voice on Ways and Means, the legislative panel with sweeping authority over tax policy, trade, Social Security and Medicare.
He chaired the committee’s trade subcommittee from 1981 to 1994, using that position to champion free trade. That stance put him in conflict with a party that courted the political support of union leaders.
He was also a prominent supporter of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement signed by President Bill Clinton to lower trade tariffs and other barriers among the economies of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
On Ways and Means, Rep. Gibbons was the longtime No. 2 Democrat under chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill. But as corruption charges emerged against Rostenkowski in the early 1990s, Rep. Gibbons positioned himself for a takeover and promised a more inclusive approach.
He became acting chairman in June 1994 after Rostenkowski was indicted on multiple felony counts, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer dollars and campaign funds.
With the watershed election in November 1994 that swept Republicans to majority in both chambers of Congress, Gibbons was ousted from the chairmanship. The congressman also faced a rough reelection campaign, but survived.