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Business Observer Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2022 3 months ago

Frank Mann, Lee County commissioner and environmental leader, dies at 80

Mann is remembered as a fierce defender of the county he loved and a politician who inspired others.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

Frank Mann, a Lee County commissioner for 14 years and an ever-present face in Florida politics for nearly 50, died Tuesday, June 20 at his Alva home. He was 80 and had celebrated his 61st wedding anniversary June 1.

The cause of death was not immediately available.

According to a statement from the county, he died surrounded by family not long before colleagues on the County Commission voted to rename a 625-acre preserve after him.

The recognition, according to commissioners, friends and family at the commission meeting, was a fitting tribute for a man who loved the outdoors and was touted as a tireless advocate for Florida’s environment, leading the charge on issues ranging from protecting manatees to setting aside space for future generations.

“If there was one overarching theme of his entire public service career,” says Mann’s son, Frank Jr., “it was to maintain and enhance the quality of life here in Lee County by protecting and preserving the beauty that he enjoyed since his times as a boy, riding horses and running cattle where Cape Coral City Hall sits right now.”

Frank Jr. called the decision “the most appropriate thing I can imagine. And I know it’s something he was very grateful for.”

The Tuesday meeting began with the announcement by Chair Cecil Pendergrass that Mann had died and followed by a moment of silence and a prayer. Members of Mann’s family sat in the first row, and Mann’s seat on the dais, in the shadows of a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was draped by a black cloth, a bouquet of white flowers sitting on the desk.

“I think Frank won some and lost some, but he was relentless and indefatigable, (and) people loved Frank,” says Frank Neal, a former state senator and prominent local developer. “He believed in what he believed. Sometimes that was popular, sometimes not.

“He stood up for what he believed, and to my mind, he was a servant for the people of this state and a servant for the people of Lee County. We’ll miss him for the person he is, but we’ll live on with him for all that he’s done for the people of Lee County.”

Another friend, Porter Goss, the former CIA director and a former congressman and a member of the Lee County Commission, lamented that he did not get a chance to visit Mann, who’d been sick, one more time, something he’ll “regret that forever.”

“I’m very, very proud to publicly say Frank Mann was my friend and my mentor. And if I’ve ever done anything good in public service, I have to give him some of the credit.”

Mann was born in Lee and spent most of his life in the county where his father owned a construction company that bears the family name. There was at least one sojourn away from home when he attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, graduating in 1964 with a degree in political science.

Mann entered politics in 1974 after seven years in the insurance industry and spent eight years in Florida’s House of Representatives followed by four more in the Florida Senate.

During Mann’s time in office, he served as chair on the budget committees for both transportation and education. He is credited with helping bring Interstate 75 from Tampa to Naples, turning State Road 80 into four lanes in Lee, and helping to double the size and capacity of Edison Community College, then known as Edison State, according to a campaign biography.

“One of the problems with living such a long life, of having such a legacy, is that legacy is so far in the past that people don't always remember all the things that Frank man did,” Neal said, going on to list the impact Mann made while in office, from creating legislation to protect the Florida panther to protect wetlands and to help the disabled.

In 1986, Mann ran for lieutenant governor alongside State Rep. Steve Pajcic, D-Jacksonville. Mann was chosen because of how he’d help Pajcic woe voters in Southwest Florida, which even then was heavily republican.

Mann’s decision to run for alongside Pajcic was made after first attempting to run for the job in 1985. But, according to a Fort Lauderdale News story from the time, “he was unable to shake his dark horse image in the image in the race for the top spot.”

Asked about the role of a lieutenant governor before being picked for the job, he quipped that the job of lieutenant governor didn’t require much effort.

“I’ve been looking for a lieutenant governor as I rode the streets of Florida, and I got a good candidate here, and his name is Stretch Bradley. I asked Stretch if he knew anything about being lieutenant governor, and he said, ‘I can cut ribbons and attend funerals,’ and I said, ‘Son, you’re my man.'”

Mann had to apologize to then-Lt. Gov. Wayne Mixon.

But once chosen, Mann embraced the position and worked to assure voters that he’d have a say in the state as well making sure the region was well cared for. Newspaper stories tell of him traveling the state meeting citizens, including shining shoes for locals who adored him.

Pajcic, according to an Oct. 26, 1986, story in the News-Press, promised that if elected Mann would run the state’s Department of Commerce and said, “I certainly wouldn’t put my career on the line to run with him if I didn’t believe in him.”

For his part, Mann told the newspaper that “the prestige of the title will open doors in the capital bureaucracy for Southwest Florida.”

Nine days later, on Nov. 4, 1986, Bob Martinez and Bobby Brantley won the race with 54% of the vote. Martinez finished with about 58% of the votes in Lee County, according to local news reports the day following the election.

After the election, Mann, who eventually became a Republican, worked in insurance and real estate while running for and holding local offices.            

He was elected to the County Commission in 2008.

In that role, he was known as a fierce advocate, often siding against developers in favor of preserving the area.

Speaking at the June 20 meeting, fellow Commissioner Brian Hamman called Mann “the real-life Lorax, the person who looked out for the trees and the environment.”

“I’m going to miss him,” Hamman says. “It’s been a joy to sit next to him the last couple of years and just to be able to poke fun at each other. I’ll just miss his big voice.”  

A memorial service for Mann is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, July 2, at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2439 McGregor Blvd., in Fort Myers, the church where he sang in the choir for more than 50 years.

At the end of his speech Tuesday, Frank Jr., a local judge, ended his comments by looking at the dais and telling his father’s now former colleagues that that they should heed his example — or else.

“He’s going to be watching you. If you screw up his county, he’s going to come back and haunt you. I know. I’ve screwed up a lot of things in my life and been haunted by him till I got it right. I’m telling you, you don’t want that. So take good care of his county.”

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