Bill Brock, the former Tennessee senator who as party chairman revived and broadened the Republican Party machinery after Watergate to pave the way for Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, died on Thursday at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 90.
The cause was pneumonia, said Tom Griscom, a spokesman for the family.
Mr. Brock voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a representative from Tennessee — a vote he later regretted — but as party leader he became an insistent voice for greater Republican efforts to win over Black voters.
As chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1977 through 1981, he clashed with Reagan over the Panama Canal treaties and the site of the 1980 national convention. (Mr. Brock argued for Detroit, a Black majority city; Reagan preferred Dallas.) But after winning the nomination, Reagan kept him on as party chairman and later chose him to be the United States trade representative and then secretary of labor.
Mr. Brock won the chairmanship of his party at a time when it was demoralized in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the fall of Richard M. Nixon, commanding the allegiance of only 20 percent of Americans, according to New York Times/CBS News polls.
Republicans had lost the White House in 1976 and had suffered serious losses in congressional elections that year, as they had in 1974. Mr. Brock himself was among the 1976 casualties, losing his Senate re-election bid to James Sasser, a Democrat.
Though he had backed President Gerald R. Ford over Reagan in the 1976 nomination race, Mr. Brock was seen as a compromise candidate between the preferred choices of Ford and Reagan: James A. Baker III, Ford’s 1976 campaign manager, and Richard Richards, the Utah Republican chairman and a Reagan backer.
Even before becoming chairman, Mr. Brock said in 1975 that the party had suffered because Republicans were perceived as “old, middle class, upper income.” When he was elected to lead the national committee in 1977, he said: “The party cannot just open its doors. It has to go out and bring people in, and in doing so give them a real voice in our leadership and in the development of our objectives. That means stirring the waters.”
He worked to develop a “farm team” of candidates for local and legislative offices and the party operatives to help them win. More visibly, he strove to appeal to blue-collar workers, young people, women and Black Americans. He barnstormed the country in favor of Representative Jack Kemp’s plan for heavy tax cuts in 1978, and two years later put R.N.C. money into television advertisements with the tag line “Vote Republican for a Change.”
His effort to expand the party’s appeal, particularly to Black voters, led him to campaign for Detroit to be the site of the 1980 national convention. Reagan’s backers on the national committee had wanted Dallas, but Mr. Brock prevailed narrowly.
Mr. Brock had angered Reagan in 1977 by refusing to use party money in a campaign against the treaties, signed by President Jimmy Carter, that turned the Panama Canal over to Panama. Some Reagan allies wanted to punish Mr. Brock for his resistance by blocking his re-election as party chairman in 1980, but Reagan heeded advice to keep Mr. Brock on in the name of party unity.
As trade representative, Mr. Brock worked out voluntary quotas on Japanese automobile sales in the United States in 1981, and focused trade energies away from manufacturing and toward services, investments and intellectual property. He began a practice of working on bilateral free trade agreements (a pact with Israel was the only one he completed), and laid the groundwork for the Uruguay Round of trade talks and the World Trade Organization that emerged from it in 1995.
Mr. Brock shifted to the Labor Department in 1985. He made friends with labor (and enemies among some Reagan disciples) by supporting affirmative action programs and enforcing the Occupational Health and Safety Act. More broadly, he sought to redirect the department’s efforts toward job training and productivity.
He left the Labor Department in 1987 to run Bob Dole’s unsuccessful bid for the 1988 presidential nomination.
A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., who later moved to Annapolis, Md., Mr. Brock made his last venture in elective politics to run for the Senate from Maryland. In 1994, a generally great year for Republicans, he was soundly beaten by Paul Sarbanes, the incumbent Democrat.
His other major interest after leaving government was working on two national commissions to reform American education with the goal of producing a work force ready for the 21st century. He also started a trade consulting firm in Washington.
During the 2016 primary season Mr. Brock opposed Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination and spoke publicly and ruefully about a loss of civility in American politics.
William Emerson Brock III was born on Nov. 23, 1930, to William E. Jr. and Myra (Kruesi) Brock. He grew up in a Democratic family and attended schools in Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Mountain.
He graduated from Washington & Lee University in Virginia and served in the Navy, then went into the family business in Tennessee, becoming a vice president of the Brock Candy Company. It had been founded by his grandfather William E. Brock, who served as a Democratic senator from Tennessee from 1929 to 1931, appointed to fill a vacancy.
Mr. Brock married Laura Handly, who was known as Muffet, in 1957. She died of cancer at 49 in 1985, when Mr. Brock was labor secretary. He later married Sandra Schubert Mitchell.
He is survived by his wife; three sons from his first marriage, William E. IV, John and Oscar (who has been active in Republican politics in Tennessee); a daughter, Laura Hutchey Brock Doley, also from his first marriage; two stepchildren, Julie Janka and Stephen Cram; two brothers, Pat and Frank; 17 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Brock won a House seat in 1962 and served four terms before challenging Albert Gore Sr. in his bid for a fourth Senate term in 1970. Mr. Gore’s opposition to the Vietnam War had made him a prime target of the Nixon White House, which funneled money and advisers to Mr. Brock.
The Brock campaign ran advertisements attacking the incumbent, a Democrat, over busing and prayer in schools, and painted him as out of touch with ordinary Tennesseans, proclaiming in billboards, “Bill Brock Believes in the Things We Believe In.” That message, rather than anything Mr. Brock said himself, led the journalist David Halberstam to write in Harper’s Magazine that the slogan was a coded message to white racists, concluding that Brock had run a “shabby racist campaign.”
In an interview for this obituary in 2009, Mr. Brock said that the racism charge had infuriated him. The billboard message, he said, had been intended only to paint Mr. Gore as out of touch with his state.
But the accusation, he said, did cause him to engage in “some fairly serious soul-searching” about how some white Tennesseeans might have heard the message approvingly as a racist appeal. His concerns intensified when he became a national party leader. He said his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act — calling his own vote “stupid” in retrospect — had made the party seem “exclusionary.”
“I felt, and still do, that any party that does not pay attention to every constituency group in the United States does not deserve support from any of those groups,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you have to get them. But it does mean you have to try. It does mean you have to listen. It does mean you have to understand their concerns, or else you’re in the wrong business. The longer I stay around, the more strongly I feel about that.”
Adam Clymer, a reporter and editor at The Times from 1977 to 2003, died in 2018. Alex Traub contributed reporting.