TAMPA — Nelson Italiano advised governors and was highly influential in Hillsborough County politics during the 1970s and 1980s.
But Italiano, a Tampa native who first made a name for himself as a running back for Florida State University, then as an insurance salesman, also was a polarizing and controversial figure in his hometown.
“Well, he wasn’t controversial to me,” said friend Ed Flom. “Nelson was always upbeat. Always happy. It was fun just to be with him.”
Italiano died Thursday. He was 85.
“He passed at 4 a.m.,” son Jeff Italiano said. “It was very peaceful.”
Jeff Italiano said his father went to the hospital two weeks ago with pneumonia; doctors found out Nelson Italiano had cancer.
Jeff Italiano said his father was “bigger than life” and was “involved in everything” in Tampa.
“He was an incredible man,” Jeff Italiano said. “He’s a Tampa icon.”
Nelson Italiano’s political clout began to grow in the early 1970s, when he was chairman of Gov. Reubin Askew’s gubernatorial election campaign in Hillsborough County. When Askew won the seat, Italiano became Askew’s chief advisor on appointments in Hillsborough.
“As the governor’s leading, usually only, advisor on whom to place in a vacancy on some board or public office in the county, Italiano’s imprint on governmental affairs has been left on Hillsborough’s courts, community college, county commission, school board, tax collector’s office, water management district and the expressway, aviation, sports and port authorities,” stated a Sept. 4, 1977, story in The Tampa Tribune.
In 1987, Nelson Italiano was convicted of mail fraud in connection with the bribery of public officials. Authorities said Italiano, then a lobbyist for a cable company, bribed Tampa and Hillsborough officials in the early 1980s. The bribes were offered to secure lucrative cable television franchises, according to court records.
Jeff Italiano said the case against his father had little merit.
“It was a political situation,” Jeff Italiano said. “It wasn’t a pleasant part of his life, but it passed and it never affected us again.”
Flom said the Nelson Italiano depicted in the media was not the man he knew personally.
“We did a lot of things together,” said Flom, who will be a pallbearer at Italiano’s funeral Monday. “We hunted. We fished. Nelson was a man’s man, but all the women loved him.”
Italiano was born in Tampa on Aug. 29, 1928. He attended Plant High School, where he played football and ran track. He attended FSU and played football there for three years before joining the U.S. Air Force. In 1960, he founded his insurance company and became involved in many civic organizations in Tampa.
The funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Monday at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church, 3723 Bay to Bay Blvd.