Charlie Whitehead Blends Successful Business and Political Careers

Self-Made LegendCharlie Whitehead blends successful business and political careersBy Linda Kleindienst


There is nothing half-hearted about Charlie Whitehead. A big man with a booming voice and ready laugh, he has an enthusiasm for work and politics that’s hard to match.

Whitehead began working as a car salesman after coming home from the Korean War in 1954 and eventually developed two fruitful careers. He is a business success and can call “friend” a host of state and national political leaders, including former presidents and their advisers.

In his business life, Whitehead owned the Cook-Whitehead Ford dealership in Panama City until he finally sold it to AutoNation in 1998. On the side, he dabbled in Florida politics, a “hobby” that has seen him run successful Senate and presidential campaigns and four times get elected chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

Born in Panama City, Whitehead grew up in the car business. His father, a native of Washington County, was service manager at Cook Ford (which added the Whitehead name in 1960), and his uncle owned the first Chevrolet dealership in Bonifay.

“I went to the University of Miami in 1950, but then the Korean War started,” he recalls. “You either joined the Navy or were drafted by the Army, so I went in the Navy.” He served as an electronics technician and radar observer for the AD-4 Skyraiders, dive bombers assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea.

Whitehead planned to go back to school on his return but went to the Ford dealership for a job instead.

“I got successful, put school off for a year, made good money and just didn’t go back,” he says. “I liked what I was doing.”

A lifelong Democrat born in Panama City, Whitehead made his first foray into politics by helping in the congressional campaigns of Bob Sikes in the 1960s. That got him “infatuated” with politics, and he quickly delved into his first statewide campaign by helping a relatively unknown state senator from Pensacola run for governor. Reubin Askew went on to win that race in 1970 — and Whitehead was hooked.

In 1976, he helped engineer Jimmy Carter’s surprise presidential win in Florida. Carter aide Hamilton Jordan decided that Whitehead should be the state Democratic Party chairman in time for the 1980 presidential campaign. Whitehead did win the chairmanship in April, but his party had an uphill battle in trying to defeat the Republican juggernaut led by Ronald Reagan.

“I got elected just in time for the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ ” Whitehead remembers. And Carter lost Florida.

Whitehead left the state party post in 1989, when business partner Bill Cook died. But in 2000, he was called back to help out a financially troubled political party. With the help of a friend, Bill Clinton, he raised $3 million in eight months.

Ironically, one of Whitehead’s closest friends during those years was a competitor — in politics and business. Tommy Thomas owned Thomas Chevrolet, which for many years was located just across the street from Whitehead’s Ford dealership. Thomas also happened to be chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

“We used to use field glasses and get the license plate number of his customers, then call them up,” Whitehead says with a laugh. “He did the same thing to us.”

Bill Cramer, Thomas’ son-in-law, still runs the Chevy dealership and talks with Whitehead sometimes twice a week. He says his friend and former competitor did business the way it should be done — by being intimately involved with every aspect of it.

“He is a very astute business person and a tough competitor, but he believes in fair play,” says Cramer. “He came up the hard way. He is a self-made success.”

For youngsters entering the work force, Whitehead has some seasoned advice:

“Stay focused, have integrity. If you tell somebody you’ll do something, do it. If you can’t, then tell them why.”