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Florida’s Only Female U.S. Senator Passes Away

Former U.S. Sen. Paula Hawkins, the “Maitland housewife” who was Florida's only female U.S. Senator, has died at 82.

"She was a real American treasure and a real original," said Lew Oliver, Republican chairman in Hawkins' home Orange County. "I'd last seen her a year ago, and she was quite frail. But she is a uniquely American story."

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who served as Hawkins' chief of staff, announced the former Senator's passing in a release Friday morning. Hawkins had dealt with a number of health issues recently, but her death is being attributed to complications from a major fall, Mica said.

Hawkins was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate without having gone to Congress first on a family connection. She was just the 15th woman in the Senate, serving from January 1981 to January 1987, leaving after losing in her re-election bid to then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham.

“With Paula Hawkins’ passing, we have lost a remarkable public servant and trailblazer for women and all Americans in the state and national political landscape,” Mica said in his statement. “Senator Hawkins was the first popularly elected female United States Senator who attained the office without a husband or father preceding her in politics.”

An elected member of the Public Service Commission, Hawkins rode the wave of Reagan supporters who won election to the Senate in 1980.

Hawkins, who spent most of her Senate career working on women's and children's issues, made national headlines in 1984 when she announced at a national conference on child abuse that she had been sexually molested as a child.

Hawkins was hampered by a series of missteps and mishaps that affected her political career. She made news because of a serious political gaffe during her Senate career when she held a steak luncheon for Florida agricultural leaders to talk about her proposal to jail food stamp cheaters.

She also had an unfortunate accident at a Winter Park TV studio, when a set backdrop fell on her, knocking her unconscious and landing her in the hospital. She had three operations on her neck and back during the eight days following the accident. Her loss to Graham in 1986 came amid reports that neck and back pain was hampering her campaigning. According to news reports from the time, she was forced to cancel numerous events and frequently wore a neck brace and spent hours in physical therapy.

Prior to her election, she served as a member of the PSC for eight years.

“She was the standard-bearer for the little guy when she was on the state's Public Service Commission,” said Bill Donegan, Orange County Property Appraiser, who shared Hawkins' Maitland hometown. “She took on the establishment, utilities and power companies. That was hard to do then, and now.”

Statements from various state officials came pouring in following the announcement of Hawkins' death Friday. She was called a “trailblazer,” “outstanding public servant” and a “pioneering spirit.” The state House, meeting Friday in special session, observed a moment of silence in her honor.

Hawkins is survived by her husband Gene Hawkins of Winter Park and three children, Genean McKinnon of Winter Park and Montreal, Kevin Hawkins of Denver, Colo. and Kelly McCoy of Orlando, as well as 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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