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Martin Dyckman

History warns against wealth over experience

Florida voters almost always have expected their governors and U.S. senators to win election the old-fashioned way: by earning it. Never has either of these offices been bought.

But this year's polls suggest that Rick Scott's fat checkbook is persuading Republican primary voters to overlook his lack of any record of public service.

If he goes to the governor's office, he would be only the third man since 1900 to get there without first having been elected or appointed to any lesser public office.

What the first two did with the state's top job points out the huge gamble Scott's voters would be taking.

The first was Sidney J. Catts, elected as the Prohibition Party's candidate in 1916 after a court-ordered recount erased his apparent victory in the Democratic primary. A Baptist minister and insurance salesman, Catts was the most outspoken bigot ever to hold the governor's office, which he won by exploiting anti-Catholic prejudice. Most historians consider him to have been Florida's worst governor. By the end of his term, the public seems to have seen him the same way; he ran a distant third in the 1920 Democratic senatorial primary.

A more recent and perhaps more instructive example is that of Claude R. Kirk Jr., the Republican elected in 1966 after a bitter Democratic primary turned out incumbent Haydon Burns and alienated his conservative supporters. Like Scott, Kirk had no resume to show voters other than his apparent success in building a business. (Unlike Scott's health care companies, however, Kirk's business — an insurance company — was scandal-free.)

Kirk's major campaign promises — to improve education without any new taxes — were as implausible as Scott's pledge to create 700,000 jobs in seven years while cutting taxes and spending. Although he did not avoid the news media to the extent Scott has, Kirk was equally as elusive in explaining how he would implement his platform.

When it turned out that he could not help education without more revenue, Kirk accepted what was then the largest tax increase in Florida's history. Teachers thought that it wasn't enough and walked out statewide.

The most serious consequence of Kirk's political inexperience was his penchant for conflict instead of compromise with the Legislature and the Cabinet. After he vetoed a legislative pay raise legislative leaders thought he had promised to accept, even those in his own party turned against him.

The prevailing view of Kirk as a poor governor is unfair to the extent that it neglects outstanding accomplishments in defense of the environment. But it accurately reflects the many other opportunities he squandered in pursuit of what a biographer called "the politics of confrontation." In 1970, Kirk became the first governor to be defeated for a second four-year term.

Of the 27 governors since 1900, 22 had served in the Legislature; Kirk, Catts and Jeb Bush (elected in 1998) were the only ones who had no experience in elected offices.

Bush had been briefly in Tallahassee as Gov. Bob Martinez's secretary of commerce and was familiar with politics in Miami-Dade County and through the career of his father George H.W. Bush, whose long record of public service culminated in the 41st presidency. But the fact that the younger Bush had not held his own elected office may have had a lot to do with his defeat in his first run for governor and his disinterest in obtaining bipartisan support for his more controversial policies when he was elected in 1998. Relying on large majorities of Republicans in the Legislature, Bush did not have to view compromise as a necessity. That he did not regard it as a virtue either will count against his historical record. Voters may want to consider his example along with Kirk's when they ponder how well or poorly Scott might perform his duties.

Democrats have their own inexperience issue in this year's primaries. Jeff Greene, the billionaire investor who may take the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate over an experienced Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, would be the first elected senator since 1916 — when the public rather than the Legislature began choosing senators — with not a single day of appointive or elected public office in his background.

These statistics come, of course, mostly from times past when the laws inhibited heavy campaign spending. While drugstore millionaire Jack Eckerd was investing a million dollars in seeking the 1970 Republican gubernatorial nomination, the Legislature was enacting a spending limit that stopped him from laying out any more. But that law, and all others like it, ran afoul of the Supreme Court's perverse interpretation of freedom of speech.

And that is why wealth may pass for experience in the Florida politics of 2010.

Martin Dyckman, a retired Times associate editor, is author of "Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins," published by the University Press of Florida.

History warns against wealth over experience 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 8:23pm]
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