How Florida Happened: The Political Education of Buddy MacKay is the memoir, written with Rick Edmonds, of an uncommon citizen who served 12 years in the Florida Legislature, six in the Congress, and nearly eight as lieutenant governor before succeeding his friend Gov. Lawton Chiles, who died in December 1998 with three weeks left in his term. State capital reporters and their editors voted MacKay the "Most Valuable" member of the House or Senate a record seven times. His book recounts the career that earned those honors. MacKay was interviewed by Martin Dyckman. The transcript has been condensed and edited.
Let's start with some alternative history. You say you became a Democrat because the Marion County supervisor of elections would not let you register as a Republican lest it "embarrass your family." What would have happened if you had become a Republican?
I don't know. I'm not at all sure the Republican Party could have survived it.
Which of your offices gave you the most satisfaction, and why?
There was a real feeling of momentum and a real feeling of accomplishment in the Florida Legislature at that time (1968-80). And I'm not sure I had that same feeling in the Congress. On the other hand, the issues in Washington are worldwide issues, they're not roads and sewers and local taxes, so intellectually it's much more stimulating in Washington than in Tallahassee, but just in terms of my own personal satisfaction it was those early years.
What was your most rewarding experience in office?
I think serving in the Florida Senate under (President) Dempsey Barron and having to operate almost like guerilla warfare and still being able to accomplish things, that was the most satisfying.
What was your most frustrating experience in office, and why?
(Laughs) Not every day in the Florida Senate under Dempsey Barron was fun. . . . The (1975) battle over the confirmation of O. K. Keller, which led to the formation of the group called the Doghouse Democrats, was as frustrating as anything I've ever experienced. I felt it was an insult to the Senate, which at that time had a real tolerance for dissent and opposing viewpoints.
(MacKay is referring to Barron's successful opposition to the reappointment of Gov. Reubin Askew's secretary of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, at the time the state's largest agency. After the showdown vote, Barron and other conservative Democrats coalesced with Republicans to marginalize senators who had supported Keller.)
You came into Florida government when the Democratic majority and the Republican minority usually worked together to get things done. Strict party-line votes were rare. It's the other way now. What has happened?
I think it's a reflection of what's happened in national politics. I lay a lot of the blame for it on Newt Gingrich and the people who sort of purposefully are creating this dividing line where every issue is partisan. . . . I think the long-term cost is that a lot of really good people are not going to be willing to be involved.
He (Gingrich) is one of the brightest, most amoral persons I've ever met. It's not that he doesn't know right from wrong; to me it's just that he's totally pragmatic. He looks at each issue in terms of what it can do for the success of his point of view. That's a very scary combination.
The droll sense of humor that endeared you to the capital press corps is still evident in your book despite two unsuccessful Senate races (1980, 1988) and your defeat for governor (1998). How do you keep smiling, so to say?
One of the endearing aspects of a career in politics is that strange and weird things have happened; that's what got me started keeping a journal. Some of these things were so funny I don't want to forget them. It's not only humor, there was a great deal of pathos, and some moments were very tender. You saw people making votes that they knew were probably the end of their political career but doing it because that was their responsibility.
You describe a losing battle to reconcile growth with a perpetually shrinking tax base. Can you see any way for Florida to dig out of that?
We will dig out of it. The question is will there be a catastrophe and will it be unnecessarily painful to do it? At the present rate, I think the need for reform will be externally imposed. We'll either have a catastrophic hurricane and they'll have to impose surcharges that nobody anticipates on insurance policies . . . or else we will run out of water and they will have to truly start putting limitations on water. The chickens are going to have to come home to roost at some point.
Since we began this interview with an alternative history, let's end it with more imagination. Can you imagine any way to restore comity to the political process, address Florida's problems, and turn this state around?
That will take some real leadership on both sides of the aisle. There are people serving now of a caliber who can do this, and my hope is there will come a time when there is some trust at the leadership level. I think of (House Republican Leader) Don Reed working with (House Speaker Richard) Pettigrew (1970-72). They didn't agree on a lot of issues, but there was a level of trust and comradeship there that affected a lot. . . .
I can see the passage of those citizens' initiatives (November ballot amendments 5 and 6, which would forbid political gerrymandering) as the start of a major change. . . . I believe those amendments are the most important thing that could happen.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Times.