Richard Stone, senator from Florida and envoy to Central America, dies at 90

July 31 at 6:30 PM

Richard B. Stone, a conservative Florida Democrat who served one term in the U.S. Senate before becoming President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to Central America amid civil war and unrest in El Salvador and Nicaragua, died July 28 at a rehabilitation center in Rockville, Md. He was 90.

He had pneumonia and other ailments, said a son-in-law, Joel Poznansky. Mr. Stone, who was a longtime resident of the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, also served as ambassador to Denmark during the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush and the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.

The son of a Belgian-born Jewish builder, Mr. Stone grew up in the Blackstone hotel in Miami Beach, a regional landmark that his family owned and operated for decades. (The name of the hotel was an Anglicized version of his father’s surname at birth, which meant “black stone.”)

The younger Mr. Stone ran a lucrative legal practice in Florida before entering state and then national politics. To win his Senate seat in 1974, he formed, according to “The Almanac of American Politics,” an “unlikely alliance between condominium dwellers in the Gold Coast and rural Protestants in the northern panhandle, having attracted the latter group by playing the harmonica and spoons on campaign trips in north Florida.”

With his election, he became the first Jewish person sent to the Senate from the South since the 1880s. (In that era, and until the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, senators were not directly elected but rather named by state legislatures.)

In both his state and national offices, he supported greater transparency in government operations — a philosophy that he demonstrated, his son-in-law said, by removing the doors to his personal offices.

Richard Stone, senator from Florida and envoy to Central America, dies at 90 1
Secretary of State George Shultz, left, presides as Mr. Stone is sworn in as President Ronald Reagan’s envoy to Central America in 1983. (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

Mr. Stone served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he represented his many Cuban-born constituents by forcefully opposing the Communist regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and by helping enact legislation that extended $100 million in aid to Cuban refugees. As chairman of the subcommittee with oversight of Middle Eastern affairs, he was regarded as a strong advocate for Israeli interests.

Mr. Stone campaigned against but then ultimately became persuaded to support the treaties that transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama, an issue that he said contributed to his loss in a primary runoff in 1980.

After his defeat, Mr. Stone surprised some fellow Democrats by becoming a foreign policy adviser to the transition team of President-elect Reagan, a Republican. He later was a lobbyist for the right-wing government of Guatemala.

In May 1983, Reagan named him special envoy for Central America with the rank of ambassador at large. Mr. Stone, who spoke Spanish, saw for himself a limited ambassadorial role amid the internecine conflicts plaguing the region.

“My role is to foster and promote discussions, not to preempt them,” Mr. Stone said upon his appointment, according to the New York Times. “Let’s be a friend and supporter rather than telling them what to do. The agenda for negotiations in Central America must be maintained by Central Americans. Efforts by the United States to be a negotiator could upset those initiatives.”

He remained in the post for about nine months, traveling extensively in the region. He impressed the State Department with his efforts to lead leftist Salvadoran rebels into negotiations with the Salvadoran government but was ultimately unsuccessful, and the bloody conflict dragged on for nearly another decade.

Mr. Stone later embarked on an international tour to bolster support for Reagan’s policies in Nicaragua, where the United States backed the rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinista government. He stepped down in March 1984 amid what The Washington Post described as “personal and turf disputes.”

Richard Bernard Stone was born in New York City on Sept. 22, 1928, and raised in Florida, where the family moved when he was a baby. He and his siblings grew up in the penthouse of their father’s hotel. Amid the indignities of Jim Crow-era segregation, his father supported civil rights by opening the hotel to a convention of African Methodist Episcopal ministers, according to the Miami Herald.

Mr. Stone received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University in 1949 and a law degree from Columbia University in 1954. He served as city attorney of Miami in 1966 before joining the state Senate in 1967 and then becoming Florida secretary of state in 1970.

In 1974, he edged out then-Rep. William D. Gunter in a contest for the Democratic nomination for the Senate. Six years later, Gunter narrowly beat Mr. Stone in the primary before losing to the Republican nominee, Paula Hawkins.

Outside of government, Mr. Stone held executive-level positions with Capital Bank and Dart Group Corp., a company based in Landover, Md., whose holdings included Shoppers Food Warehouse and Crown Books. He acted as a lobbyist for Taiwan in its efforts to improve trade with the United States and also helped lead the group Democrats for Bush during then-Vice President Bush’s 1988 campaign for president.

Mr. Stone’s wife of 51 years, the former Marlene Singer, died in 2008. Survivors include three children, Nancy Poznansky of Bethesda, Md., Amelia Stone of Los Angeles and Elliot Stone of Miami; two brothers; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

As ambassador to Denmark, Mr. Stone learned that during World War II, his residence there had been used as the home of a Nazi commandant. He used his post to honor the memory of the Danish resistance, remarking to the Herald, “We took the Nazi curse off that building pretty effectively.”

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