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Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins, billed as the 'housewife from Maitland,' dies at 82

Former President Gerald Ford joined gubernatorial candidate and drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd and his running mate Paula Hawkins at a campaign event in Tampa in September 1978. Eckerd lost the election in November to Bob Graham.

Times files (1978)

Former President Gerald Ford joined gubernatorial candidate and drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd and his running mate Paula Hawkins at a campaign event in Tampa in September 1978. Eckerd lost the election in November to Bob Graham.

MAITLAND — When a young mother named Paula Hawkins moved to Florida in 1955, she went to a government office to fill out her voter registration card. Republican, she told the registrar. She was conservative to the bone. Always had been.

The clerk shuddered and told her not to do it. Her vote wouldn't count in the primaries. There were never Republicans on the ballot in those days.

Mrs. Hawkins glared at him with her big eyes.

"Please register me as a Republican."

• • •

Paula Hawkins, the first woman who was not the wife or daughter of a politician to win a full Senate term, died Friday (Dec. 4, 2009) at 82. She fell at home in Maitland on Wednesday, her husband said, and the injury affected her brain. Her family was by her side when she died.

She served in the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1986. Sen. Hawkins was a popular, if polarizing public figure billed as the "housewife from Maitland," building a fledging political career that had zero roots in the system. Her legacy includes defending children, fighting drugs and championing stay-at-home mothers.

"She was a genuine fighter and took on the establishment, and she had true grit," said her husband, Gene Hawkins. "She never, ever let up."

Nor did she aspire to a political career.

Sen. Hawkins was born Paula Fickes in Salt Lake City. Her father was in the Navy and traveled. Sen. Hawkins often spoke highly of her mother, an elegant, smart woman. The family moved to Atlanta, and when Sen. Hawkins was 14, she met Gene Hawkins at church.

"Well, I remember seeing those big brown eyes. I said, 'Wow, that is a beautiful young lady,' " said Mr. Hawkins, now 85. "I became attracted to her and never ceased to be attracted to her. She was witty and charming and had a lot of personal attributes that I probably don't have, but we always had in common our faith and our love and our family, and we did have a deep abiding love for this country."

They married in a sacred Mormon temple ceremony when Sen. Hawkins was 20. Mr. Hawkins worked as an engineer, and they had three children.

His wife delighted in cooking, decorating and teaching the kids to sew.

"She was an outstanding homemaker," he said. "She did not have an inclination toward politics. She had no designs on political office."

But she kept up with news and battled city hall to get sewers in her neighborhood. In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for president. Sen. Hawkins became enchanted and campaigned for him in Orange County.

In 1972, a seat on the Florida Public Service Commission came open. Her husband said running would be a waste of time because she didn't have a famous name. She ran anyway and won, becoming the commission's chairwoman.

During the 1970s, she ran unsuccessfully for state Legislature and lieutenant governor.

In 1980, she ran for U.S. Senate, winning the primary in a field of six during the Ronald Reagan wave.

She was a funny straight-talker who said politics was a razzle-dazzle game put on by men. She told reporters about laundry she had to do before campaign events. The everywoman image tempered her glamorous cheekbones and saucer eyes.

"She was better looking than most people who ever ran for office," said former state Republican Party chairman Tom Slade. Her looks could intimidate the average person, he said, so "that 'housewife from Maitland' was just the perfect tag."

She won. In 1980, with two victories under her belt, she pointed out that Republicans had produced only four statewide winners since Reconstruction. "And I'm two of them."

• • •

Sen. Hawkins had a number of accomplishments. On the PSC, she voted against utility rate hikes and pushed for open meetings, going so far as to host press conferences after closed meetings.

She was a self-styled "children's senator," spurred by the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh, as well as sexual abuse she herself suffered as a 5-year-old girl at the hands of a neighbor who lured kids with candy.

She focused on missing children, abuse, child support and youth obesity before it was a hot-button issue. She was instrumental in passing the Missing Children's Act of 1982 and pushed to get faces on milk cartons.

She supported laws that cut off aid to drug-running countries. She helped initiate the South Florida Drug Task Force and the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

She pushed for legislation to help homemakers enter the job market and get pension benefits.

She fought for childcare tax breaks and day care for Senate employees.

Critics, though, called Sen. Hawkins an attention seeker who was light on substance and didn't understand complex issues.

As a new senator, she invited the press to a luncheon featuring steak, asparagus and strawberries, and announced plans to crack down on food-stamp cheaters. Detractors pounced.

While some women idolized her, others were put off by her conservative world view. She was criticized for not supporting the Equal Rights Amendment; she thought it was poorly written and would encourage men to lose responsibility. She pushed for prayer in school and favored tax credits for private school tuition. She opposed abortion.

She battled chronic neck and shoulder pain after an accident in 1982 when a prop at Orlando's WESH television studio fell on her, knocking her out.

Some voters questioned her health during her 1986 campaign for re-election against former Gov. Bob Graham.

Did the injury curtail her political energy?

"I think so," said Sen. Connie Mack, who admired Sen. Hawkins before he got into politics. "I would imagine Paula would say no, it didn't, and the amount of effort that she put into overcoming that injury was enormous. She would be working out in the gym almost daily to try and strengthen her body to overcome it. She was a tenacious person."

The race against Graham was a media frenzy. If they disagreed on the public stage, they were friends off it, Graham said.

"I always appreciated Sen. Hawkins' graces although we contended with each other," he said. "At a personal level we got along and I think a political campaign is not a waltz but it doesn't have to be a blood sport either. I think the campaigns we engaged in were at a level that was dignified and respectful."

Graham won the race. Sen. Hawkins lived out her years in the Maitland home she shared with her husband.

They had 11 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and one more who is due in 30 days.

Sen. Hawkins considered the press to be kinder to Democrats like Graham and Gov. Lawton Chiles, her husband said.

"Paula always felt that if she had been forthrightly for abortion and not having prayer in school and pro women's rights that she would have gotten huge coverage," said Mr. Hawkins. "The media didn't share her philosophies on those things."

And she couldn't be something she wasn't.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report, which used information from Times files and the Associated Press. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

. biography

U.S. Sen. Paula Hawkins

Born: Jan. 24, 1927

Died: Dec. 4, 2009

Survivors: Husband, Gene Hawkins; children, Genean McKinnon, Kevin Hawkins, Kelley Ann Hawkins; 11 grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren.

Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins, billed as the 'housewife from Maitland,' dies at 82 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 11:13pm]

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