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Sunday, Sep 14, 2014
Commentary

The final nail in the ‘Pork Chop Gang’ coffin

Published:

In Florida, historians generally agree that the 1960 U.S. Census and the subsequent submission to the U. S. Supreme Court of multiple drafts of the state’s reapportionment plan for almost a decade would ultimately pave the way for the most significant governance change in state history. The change was described as the transition of governance by the small, rural-oriented and cliquish “Pork Chop Gang” to the final recognition of the principle of “one person, one vote,” in Florida.

The final approval of the reapportionment plan came from the country’s highest court in January 1967. The next statewide elections in 1968 and 1970 created only modest changes in the membership of the Legislature because the 1966 election anticipated many of the final district boundary changes, ushering in wholesale changes in the membership. As has been chronicled by many before, the noise from the reapportionment changes was deafening.

Starting in 1966, Floridians elected a Republican governor, Republican legislators of a significant number, and completely re-wrote their constitution covering all three branches of government. Historic laws were passed by the new legislatures protecting the environment, the elderly, the disabled and minorities; reforming the criminal justice system (including the courts), education and elections; and changing the archaic transportation system in the state. With perhaps as many changes as any state ever considered, Florida’s new ethics and budget reforms became landmark laws in the country.

New personalities quickly surfaced, shepherding all the reforms and changes: Claude Kirk, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Richard Pettigrew, Don Reed, Ken Plante, Louis de la Parte, Terrell Sessums, Marshall Harris, Jack Matthews, Elaine Gordon, Sandy D’Alemberte, Ken Myers, Jack Gordon and Lawton Chiles, among many others.

But largely overlooked was the fact that the vestiges of the Pork Chop Gang were still evident in the halls of the Capitol, wielding great power. I am not just talking about the lobbyists, who were still absorbing the shock of all the new faces from the urban areas of the state during the late ’60s and early ’70s. But there were also sitting lawmakers with ties, directly or otherwise, with the old Pork Chop Gang. The names of those powerful legislators, virtually all Democrats, are legendary: Dempsey Barron, E. C. Rowell, Wig Barrow, Ed Fortune, Lew Brantley, W. D. Childers, Ray Mattox, Gus Craig, George Inman and Billy Joe Rish, among others.

Under political siege from the urban newbies, these legislators closed ranks and rallied to hang on to their clout. Not to be criticized, they were doing what they had to do to politically survive in Tallahassee. As a result of their unity and some strong support from key lobbyists, the holdover members with ties to the Pork Chop Gang continued to win the prized seats of power in the Senate and House.

But the final nail in the Pork Chop Gang coffin came in 1977, some 10 years after the historic court decision. In a clandestine ballot of the Democratic House Caucus, future Speaker Hyatt Brown of Daytona Beach secured the necessary pledges to wrestle the 1979-80 speakership from Rep. Ed Fortune of Pace. The surprise election became known in the Capitol as “The Attack on Entebbe,” named after the famous Israeli attack in Uganda. The reign of the Pork Chop Gang was finally history. It was a pivotal time in Florida politics, but largely overlooked today.

Robert W. McKnight is a former state senator and representative whose districts included Miami and the Florida Keys. He has written two books on Florida politics and provides political commentary for the public affairs television program “Facing Florida,” and the Huffington Post, among other work. He lives in Tallahassee.

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