Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday August 14th 2018

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The 2018 Power List—The Legend: James J. Reeves

By Rick Outzen

I’ve known James J. Reeves since I first moved to Pensacola in 1982. He was my “Mr. Sunshine,” the club’s official joke teller, when I served as president of the Gulf Breeze Rotary. Since I started Inweekly, we have been on opposite sides of various issues, but I’ve always enjoyed talking with him and hearing his yarns about Pensacola politics.

At the age of 80, he has plenty of yarns to share, so it was a treat to sit down in his Bayfront Parkway office, surrounded by memorabilia from his six decades in politics, drink Tab and listen to this year’s No. 1 on the Inweekly Power List.

“I got into politics the minute I got out of law school,” said Reeves. “I went into practice with J.D. Hopkins who told me that I needed to join the Jaycees. I ended up being the club’s president, and when I finished my term as president, I ran for the state legislature.”

He defeated an entrenched politician, Escambia County School Board Member Dean Belcher, in 1966. Though he ran as a Democrat, Reeves had advertising executive Pat Dodson and five other Republicans work on his campaign. He was elected on the campaign promise to create the Historic Pensacola Preservation Board.

State Senator Reubin Askew told Reeves that the bill would be difficult to pass, and even if both chambers passed it, Republican Gov. Claude Kirk would veto it.

“Well I got HB 153 passed in the House, and I went down to the Senate and said, ‘Reubin, I got that bill passed 118 to 1. You know the bill you told me I wasn’t going to get passed?’” said Reeves.

Senator Askew was surprised that the freshman state representative got the bill passed. Reeves remembered, “He came back the next day and said it passed the Senate 38 to 0. You know he was so proud that he had gotten a unanimous vote and I had one vote against it.”

Askew still insisted that the Gov. Kirk would veto the bill, but Reeves had an ace-in-the-hole. Reeves said, “The governor didn’t veto it because my campaign manager was Pat Dodson, a Republican that he had appointed as assistant secretary to the Department of Corrections.”

In 1972, Reeves was reapportioned out office when his district was split with Santa Rosa County. He said, “I wasn’t going to run against Ed Fortune, so I retired after six years. I always say, ‘I never got tired of kissing babies, but I didn’t enjoy kissing the other end.’”

In 1977, Reeves ran for Pensacola City Council. All the council seats were at-large seats. A group of citizens led by Mutual Federal president E.W. Hopkins asked him to run against the city’s airport manager.

“I won by 44 votes, so they bought me a T-shirt, the same group that got me to run, that said, ‘Landslide 44 votes,” laughed Reeves.

He served six years on the council and was once again forced out by reapportionment. A federal judge ordered the city to create single-member districts. The court approved seven single-member districts and three at-large seats.  Reeves ran for one of the single-member seats and lost.

Banker & Real Estate Tycoon
Over the years, Reeves chartered or bought six banks—”two federal savings and loan,  three banks and one bank that we took over, Liberty Bank, that became Whitney Bank and then Hancock Bank.”

Why?  He said, “Nobody admits this, but the reason to charter a bank is like somebody said, ‘Why do you rob banks?” And I said, “Well that’s where the money is.’”

Reeves continued. “If you’ve got a good customer base, that’s also a power base. That’s an aspect, but what they won’t tell you is when you charter a little independent bank, all you’re doing is betting that some big fish is going to buy it. That’s when you get paid off.”

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