NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock, whose long career in Washington included a key role in rebuilding the Republican Party after the Watergate scandal, died Thursday morning. He was 90.
Brock had been hospitalized in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, due to pneumonia last week, said Scott Golden, the Tennessee Republican Party chairman.
He died “peacefully, surrounded by his family,” according to a statement from Brock’s family.
Brock was an official with his family’s Brock Candy Co. when he turned to politics and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1962.
He then gained wider prominence on the national stage in 1970 when he defeated veteran Democratic Sen. Albert Gore Sr., the father of the future vice president. Later, in the 1980s, Brock served under President Ronald Reagan as U.S. trade representative and then U.S. labor secretary.
After failing in his bid for a second Senate term in 1976, though, he took on what proved to be perhaps his most important job — GOP national chairman.
Brock was credited with reestablishing the party by broadening its membership and appeal by wooing Blacks, women and labor. He also put together a sophisticated, computerized fundraising operation.
“The fun of politics,” Brock told The Washington Post, “is that the challenges are unlimited.”
His work from 1977 to 1981 culminated in Reagan’s easy victory over President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“On one point there is no serious post-election argument from either Republicans or their Democratic victims — Brock and his highly professional staff at the RNC laid the groundwork for many of (the GOP’s) gains,” The Washington Post wrote after the election.
Brock had upset Gore’s bid for a fourth Senate term in 1970 by portraying him as being out of touch with Tennesseans. With his conservative philosophy, Brock also benefited from voter disapproval of Gore’s stances against the Vietnam War and for civil rights.
But Brock lost his reelection bid in 1976 to Democrat James Sasser in the aftermath of Watergate, a scandal which resulted in the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon. Sasser, making his first bid for public office after serving as state Democratic Party chairman, called Brock “a special interest senator who represents exclusively money interests.”
After Reagan became president, Brock was Reagan’s U.S. trade representative from 1981 to 1985 and then was labor secretary for 19 months.
He was credited with reestablishing Reagan administration relations with the AFL-CIO that had virtually disappeared under his predecessor, Raymond Donovan.
He returned to electoral politics in 1994 when he ran for the Senate in his adopted state of Maryland, challenging liberal Democratic incumbent Paul Sarbanes despite criticism from some that he was a carpetbagger.
Still conservative on many issues, Brock nonetheless courted Black voters and decried the tone that had overtaken the political sphere.
“Politics has gotten increasingly mean and personal, partisan, divisive,” Brock said. “I think I can make that better.”
But Sarbanes won easily, dashing Brock’s attempt to become the first person ever elected to the Senate by voters from two states.
Brock was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Brock family had founded its candy business early in the century.
He graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1953. He then served in the U.S. Navy until 1956 when he returned to work for the family business, becoming vice president of marketing. In 1994, the company merged with the E.J. Brach Corp. in a deal worth $140 million.
Brock was elected to the House in 1962, becoming the first Republican to win the district in more than 40 years.
He gained the Republican senatorial nomination in 1970 by winning a primary race against cowboy singer Tex Ritter — despite the latter’s heavy backing from Nashville stars such as Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins.
While in Washington, he liked to tend his roses in his backyard.
“I like roses,” he told a New York Times interviewer, “because they have so much character, beauty and toughness. They respond to good care, but they survive almost anything.”
Brock is survived by his wife, Sandra Schubert Brock; two brothers, Paul “Pat” Brock and Frank Brock; six children and step-children, 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.