Legendary Florida consumer advocate Walter Dartland, who spent more than four decades fearlessly challenging powerful interests on behalf of the little guy, passed away Thursday after a battle with lymphoma. His passing silences a voice that routinely championed the interests of Floridians above those of all others. He was 83.
Dartland’s illustrious career ranged from service as Dade County Consumer Advocate to a top aide to then-Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth. As Consumer Advocate – an official government position – in the late 1970s and 1980s, Dartland was routinely sought out by reporters, not just in his home county but across the state. Even after leaving government, Dartland continued to serve the public by founding the Consumer Federation of the Southeast.
“Walt accomplished more to make Florida a better place than many government agencies and career elected officials combined,” said Tallahassee public relations executive Ron Sachs, who got to know Dartland as a Miami reporter in the ’70s. “He was a naturally gifted communicator – always eloquently assailing the arrogance and abuse of any powerful interests whose products or services hurt or undermined the public interest.”
Dartland worked tirelessly on behalf of consumers, regardless of whether their causes attracted media attention or remained largely in the shadows. He was the singular driving force behind creation of Florida’s landmark Lemon Law, which helps consumers whose new cars turn out to be duds. He fought just as vigorously on behalf of a neighborhood of poor African-American residents in the small coastal Panhandle community of Port. St. Joe, whose homes were actively deteriorating because of major flaws in the homesites and construction. Dartland took on this long-shot cause for free and ultimately led a protest to the front door and headquarters of the major corporation responsible – ultimately winning a settlement that compensated the homeowners and corrected the deficiencies.
Butterworth befriended Dartland while the two ran against each other for Attorney General in the 1986 Democratic primary. “He was an icon, a fantastic guy,” Butterworth told the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.
Dartland’s tenacity turned countless hopeless causes into rousing successes, but he could not avoid the inevitable when he ran as a Democrat in a congressional district that had been redrawn to heavily favor Republicans. He was determined that his fellow Democrats should have a choice in the 2016 election in the district that includes Tallahassee, so he ran – and was summarily trounced by Republican Neal Dunn. Dartland was nonetheless proud of his unconventional campaign, explaining to the local newspaper: “I just couldn’t let there be an election and no Democratic candidate talking to people.”
Walter Dartland was a former Marine major – although his bearing and courtly demeanor throughout life proved the adage that there are no “former” Marines – and earned an engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a law degree at the University of Michigan, and was a Fulbright scholar. Later in life, he often taught at law schools.
He is survived by his wife of 36 years, Diana Dartland, and children Mark, Chris, and Dottie; grandchildren Victoria, Evan, and Flynn; and sister Christina. A memorial service is being planned.