Hours before the final ballots were tallied, Gerald Lewis, the nation's only elected banking comptroller, gathered with friends and family in anticipation of kicking off yet another victory party in his honor.

The powerful Florida regulator appeared to be rolling to a sixth straight term. Leading up to election eve, he had been well ahead in the polls -- seemingly untouched by charges that he illegally accepted gifts from bankers and snoozed through the state's worst banking crisis.

But then, at about 12:50 a.m., something happened. As Mr. Lewis and his supporters watched the returns from his office, his challenger -- a little-known Republican named Bob Milligan -- suddenly pulled ahead.

Mr. Milligan went on to win 51% to 49%, ending Mr. Lewis' remarkable 20-year reign over Florida banking.

"Last night was like a state of shock," Mr. Lewis, 60, told reporters at a press conference the day after the election.

Bankers were stunned, too.

"I was totally caught off guard," said Sam Cook, executive director and general counsel of Community Bankers of Florida.

"I don't know the guy who won," added Cyril Spiro, chairman and president of Regent Bank in Davie. "It is total uncertainty -- it could be bad."

Mr. Milligan, a retired three-star Marine general, is doing little to allay such concerns.

Though he has no experience in either banking or politics, Mr. Milligan is already moving forcefully to reshape both the comptroller's office and the competitive landscape of one of the nation's largest banking markets.

His views are decidedly hard line. For example, he says banks shouldn't be investing in derivatives or selling insurance.

"The next thing you know they will be selling fried chicken," he said in an interview this week.

Meanwhile, Mr. Milligan has requested the resignations of all senior staff members of the state's Department of Banking and Finance.

Those people will be invited to reapply for the jobs, but they will have to compete with other candidates.

Mr. Milligan advocates making the regulator's office an appointed one. Under the current system, he said, there is "ample opportunity" for the comptroller to be co-opted by the industry through campaign contributions.

All of these views represent a sharp break from the Lewis era.

Many bankers considered Mr. Lewis a "friend" to the industry.

He was open minded to their needs, he wasn't quick to shut down troubled institutions, and he was willing to take their money to fortify his campaign war chest.

"I think it has been a pretty steady regulatory environment," Mr. Spiro said. "He tried to hold a pretty steady course. He kept things on an even keel. There was a continuity in regulation."

"Gerald was pretty accessible and we could talk about issues with him," added F.C. Nixon, president of First Bank of Tallahassee, and a friend of Mr. Lewis. "It's a brand new ball game. But change is good."

The job is one of the most powerful in Florida politics. The comptroller regulates not only 255 statechartered banks and thrifts but also securities firms, cemeteries, mortgage brokers, and consumer finance companieS.

In addition, the comptroller is the state's chief fiscal officer, with approval over the expenses of everyone from the State Attorney to the governor.

The 61-year-old Mr. Milligan, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and commanded 60,000 troops in Desert Storm, campaigned vigorously on the platform of reform.

He argued that Mr. Lewis had been in the office simply too long and had abused its powers.

He says the industry needs to change, too. "They ought be more concerned about the consumer," he said, urging a lowering of charges for products and services.

Mr. Milligan is also troubled by large, out-of-state banks siphoning deposits from Florida. "I think it needs a good hard look," he said.

Ironically, Mr. Lewis initially vaulted into the office on a reform platform in 1975. His opponent, incumbent Fred Dickinson, was investigated for peddling bank charters to friends, and Mr. Lewis, a Harvard Law School graduate who served in Florida's House of Representatives and Senate, trumpeted the allegations in the 1974 campaign.

But some say Mr. Lewis changed from reformer to politician in 1982, when big banks supported another candidate.

To fight the challenge, critics say, Mr. Lewis himself tapped the industry for funds and later cozied up to high fliers like David Paul, the chairman of now-defunct Centrust Savings.

In 1992, a resolution calling for Mr. Lewis' impeachment was introduced in the House by a Republican member of the commerce committee. Though the document never reached a vote, it publicly aired some startling charges.

For example, it accused Mr. Lewis of failing to move to prevent the 1985 collapse of ESM Government Securities, which caused the failure of Home State Savings Bank of Cincinnati. Home State was controlled by Marvin Warner, a relative of Mr. Lewis.

A second impeachment resolution, fled just two months ago, maintained that Mr. Lewis illegally accepted gifts of imported vodka, Cuban cigars, $3,000 in spending money for a European trip, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas from a Panama City banker.

Mr. Lewis, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has denied both sets of charges.

Mr. Milligan, however, used the allegations as ammunition to attack Mr. Lewis during the campaign. When Mr. Lewis ducked a request for debates, Mr. Milligan stepped up his attacks and ripped Mr. Lewis with television and radio ads.

"I'd have a hard time finding a whole hell of a lot in recent years that he has done right," Mr. Milligan said shortly before the election.

Bankers don't blame the loss on negative publicity or the Milligan campaign. They point to the nationwide trend of ousting incumbents, especially Democrats.

But they acknowledge that over the years there was a growing resentment against Mr. Lewis.

Vernon Smith, president of Riverside National Bank, Fort Pierce, said he soured on Mr. Lewis when the comptroller rejected his application to start a statechartered bank in 1981. The comptroller's office cited no need for a new bank, he said.

Yet months later Mr. Lewis approved the application of a nearby bank whose chairman had raised funds for him. The office also gave the green light to a thrift a half-mile away from Riverside, Mr. Smith said. Both institutions later failed.

"We didn't feel like we had the political clout," Mr. Smith said, whose bank is a top performer in the state.

Some bankers, saying they were often pressured to contribute to Mr. Lewis' campaigns, are clearly pleased that the Lewis years have finally drawn to a close.

"All I went to bed with [on election night] was hope," said one banker. "It was incredible."

Countdown to defeat

Oct. 20:

Gerald Lewis blitzes airwaves with television ads. He decides to use the same ads he us win four years ago.

Nov. 3:

Independent poll has Mr. Lewis 11 points ahead of Republican challenger Bob Milligan.

Nov. 4:

Mr. Milligan launches thinly funded television and radio ad campaign.

Nov. 8, 9:00 p.m.:

Mr. Lewis posts 197,000 votes vs. 216,000 for his opponent.

Nov. 9 12:00 a.m.:

Mr. Lewis storms back with a 7,000 vote lead with 86% of the votes in.

Nov. 9, 12:50 a.m.:

Mr. Milligan pulls ahead for good

Nov. 9:

Mr. Lewis concedes defeat after 20 years in office.

Last-Minute Ad Blitz Put Milligan Over the Top

In the final four days before the election, Bob Milligan launched an electronic assault that would unseat incumbent Gerald Lewis for Florida's comptroller seat.

Mr, Milligan raised a mere $135,000, compared with the hundreds of thousands drummed up by Mr. Lewis' campaign.

With limited funds, his strategy was to blitz the airwaves at the last minute countering Mr. Lewis' image ads that had been saturating the airwaves for about two weeks.

"I would walk into a restaurant, and there [Mr. Lewis' ads] would be," said Raymond B. Vickers, a campaign adviser to Mr. Milligan, who also advised Mr. Lewis in his 1974 victory. "It would run in airports... just everywhere."

But Mr. Lewis' ads were largely the same ones he had used four years ago, while Mr. Milligan's were fresh.

They aired on television and radio stations across the state calling for Mr. Lewis' impeachment, criticizing him for accepting campaign funds from bankers, and telling voters -- point blank -- that 20 years of Mr. Lewis were enough.

Mr. Milligan also bought slots that couldn't be bumped. And the ads were aired before 60 Minutes and during college football games.

"The TV ads were tough, hard hitting, and accurate," Mr. Vickers said. "We knew they had to be, because we didn't have the money. It was a question of did we reach enough people."

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