Florida needs more leaders like Reubin Askew. The former governor, who died Thursday at 85, had a long-term vision for this state and pursued it with integrity, determination and no worries about his political future. He stood up to powerful forces as he tackled difficult issues ranging from school desegregation to tax reform, and Floridians trusted his judgment and followed his lead.
Askew served as governor from 1971 to 1979, and his high ethical standards set him apart in the era of Watergate in Washington and scandals in Tallahassee that eroded the public's trust in government. He ranks behind only LeRoy Collins among the state's greatest governors, and many of his accomplishments remain in place today.
Perhaps most significant is the 1976 Sunshine Amendment, which Askew persuaded voters to approve after the Legislature rejected his call for ethics reform. The constitutional amendment requires elected officials to disclose their financial interests so that Floridians can better recognize when public office is at risk of being used for private gain. Those financial disclosure requirements, combined with strong open meetings and public records laws that Askew championed as a state legislator, are the Sunshine State's best tools for holding government accountable.
Too many of Askew's other successes that served the state well for decades have been eroded. He created the water management districts, and Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have decimated them. He advocated for stronger growth management and review of large developments of regional impact, and they have been gutted and compromised. He created a nonpartisan system of screening applicants for judicial appointments, and that process has become more politicized.
Progressive tax reform has been off the agenda in this state for years. Askew successfully argued for a fairer tax system and a corporate tax. Scott has been working to kill the corporate tax altogether. It is hard to imagine anyone in Tallahassee today standing up to the lobbyists and explaining to voters why businesses should contribute more to the future of the state rather than constantly demand tax breaks in return for jobs.
Askew served as governor well before the digital age and 24-hour news cycles. He dropped out of the 1988 U.S. Senate race because he could not stand spending so much time raising campaign money, and the amount of campaign cash then sounds quaint compared to the tens of millions raised now. Third-party groups that air countless television ads also could easily drown out a candidate as independent and candid as Askew.
Yet Florida desperately needs more leaders like Askew with the vision, intellect and perseverance to rise above partisan politics and special interests to lead this state in a better direction. It needs leaders who do not fear personal attacks from outside groups. It needs leaders who trust Floridians enough to tell them the truth about what needs to be done and how to do it. They would have to spread their message using modern campaign techniques, from fundraising to tweeting. But Reubin Askew should be a role model for those who still believe in the power and the promise of public office to make a positive difference for future generations.