Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Column: Reubin Askew, Florida's selfless public servant

Long before he became one of the nation's most admired governors — before anyone else even thought that Florida might actually elect him — state Sen. Reubin Askew set his career on a remarkable course.

"Remember, the right thing to do is also the politically right thing to do," he told his aide, George Sheldon.

That remark, which Sheldon shared with me this week, is a better epitaph for Askew than anything I might write.

I never met a public servant who cared less about the election consequences of his words and actions or who listened more confidently to his conscience.

In his first campaign, for the state House, Askew encountered a heckler who called him a "n----- lover."

"The trouble is, I don't love them enough," he said. "The difference between you and me is that I'm trying to overcome my prejudices, and you're not."

This was in Pensacola, in 1958, long before there was a Civil Rights Act.

As a state senator, he drew the short straw of designing a reapportionment that would begin to dismember the ruling clique known as the Pork Chop Gang.

Some colleagues never forgave him. It wasn't popular in Panhandle Florida either. But it was his duty, and he did it.

When he ran for governor in 1970, it was against — among others — the state Senate president, a leader of his own party.

But Askew knew he was the only one who could defeat the incumbent governor, Republican Claude Kirk. They were opposites in every way.

Askew won the Democratic primary and general election by hitching his campaign to a proposed new tax, something dared by no one else before or since. He argued that corporations weren't paying their share and ordinary people were paying too much.

As a senator, he had opposed a corporate income tax. But when shown research that demonstrated the need for one, he was willing to change his mind.

When others advised the new governor not to push the issue against intense opposition from big business, Askew took it to the people and won.

As mass meetings were held in the summer of 1971 to protest court-ordered busing for desegregation, Askew devoted the heart of a commencement address to urging Floridians to comply peacefully.

"The law demands, and rightly so, that we put an end to segregation in our society," he said.

The phrase "and rightly so" was his own insertion. He thought his speechwriters hadn't been strong enough.

"I didn't want to hide behind a court opinion," he told me much later.

Demagogues in the Legislature contrived to put an antibusing straw vote on a 1972 special election ballot. Askew campaigned against it — and for a contrasting resolution endorsing "equal opportunity" — knowing that he would lose badly on the busing issue.

Despite that, his standing rose in the polls.

Florida voters admired his integrity.

And so did politicians across the country, who urged him to run for president in 1976.

He refused. He didn't think he was ready to be president.

In others, such modesty was often false. Askew was as ready as anyone, but he simply didn't believe it.

When he did think he was ready, eight years later, the favorable tide had passed.

When the Legislature didn't act strongly enough on public ethics, Askew went to the people again with Florida's first successful voter initiative.

And he went to them again, in his last year in office, to defeat casino gambling, an issue that profoundly offended his sense of decency.

Askew's love for the law — his profession — and for the integrity of the courts ran so deep that he voluntarily gave up the power to gift a governor's friends with vacant judgeships. He created nominating commissions, sharing the appointment power with the Florida Bar, so that he could not dictate who would be proposed for judgeships.

A Republican lawyer of my acquaintance called it "the most unselfish thing any governor ever did."

His most recent successors haven't been so selfless. The nominating commissions have been reduced to patronage committees.

That was hardly the only major accomplishment that Askew lived long enough to see become compromised or undone.

The corporate tax has been eroded piece by piece; Florida's revenue base has become even more regressive. Growth management, which he pioneered, is being dismantled. Minority appointments to the bench, a point of special pride with Askew, are dwindling. Having limited his re-election contributions to $300 per person, he watched the sky become the limit due to Supreme Court rulings he deplored.

But though others despaired, Askew didn't. He told friends he was confident Florida and the nation would come around once again.

Such was his faith in his country and his God.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Times and author of Reubin O'D. Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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