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Martin Dyckman

Courageous and beloved

Louis de la Parte Jr., the former state senator who died this week at the age of 79, had no enemies and too many friends and admirers to count. One of the closest was Lawton Chiles, who had served a decade with him in the Legislature. So when Chiles became governor in 1991, everyone assumed that de la Parte would head Florida's enormous social services agency, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, which de la Parte had created in 1969.

And de la Parte wanted the job. He and Jim Bax, the first HRS secretary, sat together at Chiles' inauguration. "If I get to be secretary," De la Parte asked Bax, "do you want to come and help me?"

But Chiles intended to find someone else. When an aide asked him why he had not already chosen de la Parte, the governor replied with tears in his eyes.

"Don't you know me well enough," he said, "to know that if Lou de la Parte were healthy, there is no one else I would consider?"

Chiles knew what even his friend did not seem to realize: He was in the early stages of the Alzheimer's disease that would take 17 increasingly cruel years to kill him. De la Parte was still alert, however, in 1996 when the Legislature put his name on the Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, another of his babies. I hope, however, that he was unaware when Gov. Jeb Bush, a few years later, forced counties to pay for pretrial juvenile detention so that he could cut more taxes on the rich. The state assumption of those costs in 1973 had been another of his proud accomplishments.

Unlike Bush, unlike many legislators today, de la Parte believed in government as an inherent force for good.

There was a poster on his Tallahassee office wall that said, "The trouble with a cheap education is that we never stop paying for it." Another read, "It costs more to keep a man in prison than to keep a boy in college."

But for de la Parte's passion, the 1969 government reorganization might have left most of Florida's social services agencies under the control of the elected Cabinet, which most Senate Democrats supported. De la Parte, however, insisted that the governor had to be made singularly responsible for them because they had to cope with "misery," there were no special interest lobbies to speak for them and the Cabinet would be indifferent. His goal was to have a single agency meeting all human needs with one-stop service so that people would no longer get lost in the bureaucratic maze. Sadly, it never turned out as he hoped, and HRS was eventually dismembered. The governor, however, is still responsible for the separate parts.

De la Parte was fearless as well as kind, candid rather than cautious. In opposing the new Constitution in 1968, he objected that it continued to prohibit an income tax.

"Do we have the wherewithal to finance our schools?" he asked. "We can all say we're for quality education but we've done nothing in the Constitution to let the Legislature handle it properly."

In 1971, he was the Senate's point man for Gov. Reubin Askew's corporate income tax, which required a constitutional amendment that he and the governor hoped to put to an early referendum to help balance the budget. The debate brought out his grace under fire and his unfailing good humor.

The votes for the early election weren't there. To make sure, Sen. Dempsey Barron — a tall, red-headed, crusty conservative from the Panhandle — made a fire-breathing and very effective speech against it. De la Parte's four-word reply brought the house down:

"Curse you, Red Baron."

Barron laughed as hard and as long as everyone else.

A compromise early election date was eventually approved.

Martin Dyckman is a retired St. Petersburg Times associate editor and the author of A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary, published by the University Press of Florida.

Courageous and beloved 10/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 11:35am]
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