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Politics

Askew led Florida into modern era on integration, ethics, environment

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2014 at 09:33 PM

TAMPA ­­— Reubin O’Donovan Askew, Florida’s 37th governor, died at age 85 early Thursday after a career in which he helped lead Florida into a new era of racial integration, standards of government ethics, environmental protection and fairness in taxation and spending.

On Thursday, Tampa area political figures recalled what they described as heady days of change under the leadership of Askew, sometimes called “Reubin the good” for his strong ethical and moral stances.

While serving as governor from 1970-78, Askew and a group of idealistic, progressive state officials brought the state out of its previous domination by the “Pork Chop Gang” and reactionary “yellow-dog” Democratic politics.

“He helped move Florida into the modern era,” said Tampa attorney Terrell Sessums, a former state House speaker who served with Askew.

More than any other single person, Askew was responsible for “redefining Florida as no longer part of the Old South,” said former Gov. Buddy MacKay.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, a young lawyer and civil rights activist during Askew’s tenure, called him “a champion of rights for everybody. He brought a lot of attention to Florida because he stood up for what was right and just.”

By most accounts, Askew was the foremost of a group of iconic Democratic governors, starting with Leroy Collins and continuing with Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, who brought progressive politics to Florida.

St. Petersburg historian Ray Arsenault called Askew “by any standard ... the most successful governor of Florida in the last century.”

Askew held the line against the 1970’s backlash against desegregation and appointed the state’s first black Supreme Court justice, Joseph Hatchett, and first black Cabinet member, Secretary of State Jesse McCrary, in modern history.

He made other appointments diversifying the state’s judiciary and ordered integration of the Highway Patrol.

Some of Askew’s closest associates said they regret what they see today as moves to roll back initiatives for which he’s most remembered -- broadening the tax base with a corporate income tax, the system of water management districts, and open government laws.

“There has been a departure in many ways from those principles,” said Jim Apthorp of Tallahassee, Askew’s chief of staff in the governor’s office. “It’s disappointing to see them diminished. But he put those issues on the map. Hopefully they’ll be strengthened in the future.”

Historians and former associates described Askew as the right man at the right time to bring change to what had been “a sleepy little backwater state,” in the words of Bob McKnight, an historian who served in the Legislature while Askes was governor.

He was born in Muskogee, Ok. and moved with his divorced mother and five siblings to Pensacola in 1937, according to a biography supplied by a family spokesman. He graduated from Pensacola High School in 1946 and served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper.

He graduated in 1951 from Florida State University, among the earliest male graduates of what had been the Florida State College for Women, and got his law degree at the University of Florida. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before returning to Florida.

Askew served in the state Legislature from 1958-1970, when he was elected governor. He was re-elected in 1974. He then served as U.S. trade representative under President Jimmy Carter.

However, he seemed unwilling to endure the demands of modern campaigning that a return to electoral politics required. In 1984, he ran briefly for president but quit after a low finish in the New Hampshire primary.

“The basic problem was he couldn’t raise the money he would need without making obligations he couldn’t make,” said Vernon Peeples, a classmate of Askew’s at Florida State University and later a legislator from Punta Gorda.

Askew also ended a brief U.S. Senate campaign in 1988.

Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who raised money for Askew’s campaigns, said he “cared about people too much” to be an effective campaigner. “He would get engrossed in a conversation and wouldn’t move on to the next person” -- violating the political principle of shaking hands with everyone in the room.

She said he told her he left electoral politics because, “If I wake up and don’t know which Holiday Inn I’m in, I shouldn’t be running.’’

Askew then moved on to what Apthorp said was “the happiest period of his life” - teaching public policy and government at various Florida universities. Until the end of his life he held an eminent scholar’s chair at FSU’s Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy.

Friends described Askew as highly moral -- he was the first governor to refuse to serve alcohol in the governor’s office, Sessums said.

They also called him strong-willed and stubborn, insistent on his point of view, and unhappy when he was crossed.

“He was just such an honest person – he had his own views and for the most part he wasn’t going to change them,” said former University of South Florida President Betty Castor, a freshman legislator under Askew. “He’d think nothing of calling you at midnight and telling you he was opposed to a bill of yours.”

Castor recalled being put in an uncomfortable spotlight during a lunch for new legislators at the Governor’s Mansion when Askew singled her out to tell her a bill she was proposing “would bankrupt the state.”

Castor’s bill was to allow senior citizens to sit in on public university courses for free. “He was really very conservative,” Castor said.

The bill passed over his opposition, and later, when she was at USF, courses he taught were highly popular with elderly attendees, she said.

Another former Tampa legislator, Pat Frank, remembers Askew calling her at home while she was frying chicken for a dinner party, seeking to influence her vote on preservation of the old state Capitol building.

“I was trying to explain to him that the grease was coming up and burning me, and he wouldn’t stop talking,” Frank said. “He would only finish talking when he was finished and I had grease on me, top to bottom.”

Although Askew was from Pensacola, he didn’t join the group of northern, rural Florida legislators dubbed the Pork Chop Gang by a Tampa Tribune editorialist.

The gang used apportionment of legislative districts to keep a stranglehold on Florida politics until the late 1960s, ignoring the needs of growing urban areas of Tampa and Miami.

“He was a conservative from the Panhandle, but he was independent, a loner -- he didn’t smoke, drink or womanize and wasn’t part of the gang,” McKnight said.

Sessums said the pork choppers traditionally assembled at a fishing lodge near Tallahassee to make basic public policy decisions, choosing legislative leaders and which candidates to back.

But by the time Askew became governor, the table was set for change.

The Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decisions in the 1960s gradually brought in a new crop of urban legislators, including Sessums and Askew.

“Most of us were relatively young men, we tended to be fairly idealistic,” he said. “We recognized the tremendous population growth and change the state was experiencing.”

For a few years, the pork choppers held on, he said -- “Our votes really didn’t count.”

By the mid-1970s, however, the stranglehold was broken. Meanwhile, a major revision of the Florida Constitution in 1969 offered a chance for reorganization of state government.

All that made Askew’s reforms possible.

He ran what MacKay called “a very improbable race” for governor in 1970, though still only a little-known Panhandle legislator, advocating a constitutional amendment to allow a corporate income tax. “Imagine running for governor advocating a tax increase,” MacKay noted.

Nonetheless, the issue gave Askew populist cachet.

“Businesses were all totally opposed to it, but there was a recognition that Florida’s tax base needed to be broadened,” said Castor, then active in the League of Women Voters, which backed the measure.

Still, Askew won the race only with the help of a running mate, former Secretary of State Tom Adams, who had built a statewide political machine, along with a controversial ethical reputation.

That led to one of the few smirches on Askew’s reputation as a champion of government ethics. During their first term, Adams was censured by the state legislature over ethical issues. Askew dropped him from the ticket in his 1974 re-election.

In 1972, conservatives put a straw vote on the Florida election ballot opposing busing for school integration. Askew couldn’t prevent that but succeeded in adding another straw vote opposing a return to a “dual system of public schools” and backing “equal opportunity for quality education for all children regardless of race.” Both straw votes passed.

In 1976, Askew got the Sunshine Amendment passed, the foundation of Florida’s open-government laws, considered some of the most effective such laws in the nation. Among other things, it required public financial disclosure for all public officials, required that all meetings and records of public bodies be open to the public, and established the state Ethics Commission.

“The legislators and politicians were not for it,” said Platt, who led the campaign in Hillsborough County. “It was also the first time (for a constitutional amendment petition drive), and people weren’t used to signing things. But we had a lot of volunteers who believed government needed to be cleaned up.”

Apthorp said government ethics and tax equity were the two biggest accomplishments of Askew’s tenure, and that for Askew, ethics weren’t subject to compromise.

When elected education Commissioner Floyd Christian, a strong political ally of Askew’s, was being investigated on accusations that later led to his indictment for bribery and perjury in 1974, Apthorp recalled, Christian called Askew to ask for support. Askew turned him down flat.

“There are many public officials who have a public persona, but their lives aren’t lived that way,” Apthorp said. “In his case, what you see is what you get.”

Though Collins is often thought of as Florida’s greatest governor, Arsenault argues that honor should go to Askew.

Askew, he said, “was able to enact legislation and bring a whole new spirit to Florida politics.”

Along with Jimmy Carter’s election in Georgia, that signalled the arrival of the “New South” that many progressives hoped would emerge after the 1965 Civil Rights Act, he said.

“There were counter-pressures that I think, sadly have militated against what Reubin Askew did,” Arsenault said. “But as far as we do have some more progressive aspects left, I think we can thank him.”

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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