TALLAHASSEE – Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew was remembered Thursday by Democrats and Republicans as a leader who left enduring legacies in open government and ethics, and as a champion for gender and racial equality.
But the humble Panhandle Democrat saw his many accomplishments in a different light.
“I didn’t think I was particularly remarkable,” Askew said in a 1998 interview. “I was just there.”
Askew, who served as governor from 1971 to 1979, died Thursday morning, five days after he was admitted to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Over the past three months, he suffered a stroke and pneumonia and also had hip surgery, said Ron Sachs, a former aide and family spokesman. He was 85.
“He was humble, he was visionary, he was wise and effective,” Democrat Bob Graham, who succeeded Askew as governor and later served three terms in the U.S. Senate, said in a telephone interview. “He was a good friend and a great public servant. Florida was lucky to have him.”
It’s a feeling also shared by Republicans.
“He led on contentious issues, fought for equality and did what he believed was in the best interests of Florida families,” said former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. “Governor Askew always put principle before politics, and I was fortunate to know him, seek counsel from him and learn from his years of service.”
Askew rose from obscurity in the Florida Legislature to become the Democrats’ surprise gubernatorial nominee in 1970 and then defeated the incumbent Republican, Claude Kirk.
His eight years in office coincided with the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate and dramatic social change across the nation. He was a liberal on racial issues and pushed for an overhaul of the state’s tax laws, open government, environmental protection, ethics legislation and streamlining the courts and other governmental agencies.
Askew integrated the Florida Highway Patrol, and appointed the first black in 100 years to the Florida Cabinet and the first black Supreme Court justice. He also appointed the first woman to the Cabinet and supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but Florida lawmakers failed to ratify it, a major disappointment for him.
“His advocacy for Florida’s sunshine laws was a landmark moment for ethics and transparency in government, and that legacy continues to endure,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement released by his office. “His accomplishments were vast, but he remained humble and took his commitment to public service seriously.”
Upon being elected governor, Askew immediately called a special session of the Legislature to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment for a corporate income tax. Askew stumped the state in support of the measure, which voters adopted by a 2-1 margin.
In his first year, he also won passage of penal and judicial overhaul, including the nonpartisan election of judges.
“Governor Askew opened up government to the people, allowing our state to be progressive on critical issues like civil rights, education, and ethics. He was a public servant, a teacher of students, and now a lesson of hope and progress forever sketched into the history of our beautiful state,” former Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. Crist served as a Republican and is now seeking his former job as a Democrat.
Askew began the practice of using nominating commissions for judicial appointments to limit political influence. The commission system subsequently was enshrined in the Florida Constitution.
Askew also introduced a system in which the state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges face the voters every six years to see if they should be retained.
“Our government can’t work if you do not have an independent and competent judiciary,” Askew said in 2012. “It is the best system that’s been devised for fairness.”
His leadership was tested when the Legislature, over Askew’s objection, ordered a straw ballot on a proposal to ban busing to integrate Florida’s schools in 1972. Busing by then had become a hot national issue resulting in protests and, in some cases, violence.
Askew campaigned against the busing ban, but voters approved it by 74 percent during the March 1972 presidential primary. He prevailed on lawmakers to add a second ballot question favoring equal education. It passed by an even bigger margin and took the steam out of the antibusing proposal.
The issue drew national attention to Askew, who later that year gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. Presidential nominee George McGovern asked Askew to be his running mate, but he declined.
Askew briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 but dropped out after finishing last in the New Hampshire primary.
Looking back on his campaigns during a 1998 interview, Askew compared it to his days with the 82nd Airborne.
“It’s like jumping out of airplanes,” said the soft-spoken politician. “I don’t ever want to do it again.”
Askew’s political career began when he was elected to the Florida House in 1958 and the Florida Senate four years later.
After being re-elected governor with 61 percent of the vote in 1974, Askew pushed for ethics legislation. When lawmakers balked, he collected 220,000 signatures to place his “Sunshine Amendment” on the 1976 ballot.
Adopted with 80 percent support, it requires public officials to disclose their incomes and net worth and bars former officials from lobbying their old agencies for two years after leaving.
Reubin O’Donovan Askew was born Sept. 11, 1928, in Muskogee, Okla., the youngest of six children. His father abandoned the family and, when Askew was 8, his mother, Alberta, moved to Pensacola, her hometown.
She supported the family as a waitress, seamstress, hotel housekeeper and home baker. Askew helped by selling magazines door to door. He also shined shoes, bagged groceries, delivered newspapers and sold his mother’s baked goods.
Askew married Donna Lou Harper of Sanford in 1956. They adopted two children, Angela and Kevin, who were teens during his years as governor.
He joined the paratroopers in 1946 and then used the GI Bill to attend Florida State University, where he was elected student body president. After graduation, he re-entered the service, eventually becoming an Air Force captain before earning a law degree from the University of Florida.
After leaving office, Askew practiced international law in Miami and served 15 months as President Jimmy Carter’s trade ambassador before becoming a teacher, moving in the mid-1990s to Florida State University, where the school of public administration and policy is named for him.