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The political achievements of Bob Martinez

The only Hispanic governor of Florida talks about his switch of party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and his responsibility as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy
Former Governor Bob Martinez poses for a portrait at the office building where he works in Tampa on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Former Governor Bob Martinez poses for a portrait at the office building where he works in Tampa on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Mar. 6
Updated Mar. 6

Times Correspondent

In this second part of the conversation with Bob Martinez, 86, former Tampa mayor and Florida governor, he talks with the Tampa Bay Times about his switch to the Republican Party, his visit with President Ronald Reagan, his time as the nation’s drug czar and his term as governor. He lost his bid for re-election to Lawton Chiles.

To read part one of his conversation, go to Florida’s first and only Hispanic governor.

The Republican Party courted you in the 1980s. Accompanied by prominent Tampa Republican and developer Al Austin, you met President Ronald Reagan in 1983. What did he say?

We went in the Oval Office and the president was there and so was the vice-president, George H.W. (Bush). … As I walked in, the president got up, came up to greet me. … He said, “Bobby, I’m Ronnie.’' ‘Cause everybody still calls me Bobby; my wife and anybody I went to school with still calls me Bobby. ...

I said, “Mr. President, I’m delighted to be here and to meet you in person.” So we chatted and he said, “You know, we have a lot of things in common. … I was once a union leader and so were you. So we have that in common. I was once a Democrat, and you’re a Democrat. I had to deal with the air controllers strike, and you had to deal with your garbage workers strike. And so we have a lot of background that’s very similar and you really would fit in the Republican Party.” …

I said, “Mr. President, it’s a major decision… and I always make major decisions with my wife.” …

So when I left I told Al Austin, I said, “Al, there’s going to be a bunch of media out there.’' … So, sure enough, the media was out there. “Why did you meet with the president?’' I said, “We just had general conversation.’' I did what reporters don’t like – a lot of dancing (he laughs). ...

So sometime in July I called the White House and said, “My wife and I today will be walking over to the supervisor of elections’ office and changing the party affiliation.” So that’s how it happened.

Some of your childhood friends doubted your chances to be elected governor, you say.

Some of the people I had known from elementary school years – not many but a few – and junior high or high school … (said) “You’re going to run for governor? How in the world are you going to run for governor? … You’re named Martinez. How’s that going to play up in the Panhandle? And you’re a Roman Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected governor of the state of Florida. You don’t have personal money, so how in the world are you going to go out and raise money from people who have money when you’re not one of them?”

Did you sense any resistance from voters because of your Hispanic heritage?

I never felt that I was being discriminated against. ... So I have nothing but praise for the people of Florida. They accepted me for who I was.

President And Drug Czar -- President Bush, right, and Bob Martinez, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy, talk before the start of the first plenary sesion in San Antonio, Texas Thursday morning. Leaders from six Latin American countries are meeting with Bush in this south Texas city. 1992

Martinez Bob - Former Fl. Gov., 1990
President And Drug Czar -- President Bush, right, and Bob Martinez, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy, talk before the start of the first plenary sesion in San Antonio, Texas Thursday morning. Leaders from six Latin American countries are meeting with Bush in this south Texas city. 1992 Martinez Bob - Former Fl. Gov., 1990 [ Photo: Archive ]

What do you feel were your key accomplishments as governor?

I would say the Preservation 2000 was the biggest. I got national awards for that. That was a land acquisition program which is now called Florida Forever. … Under that plan, using growth (documentary) tax stamps, we were able to finance $300 million worth of property acquisition per year for 10 years, so it would be $3 billion. It was the largest land acquisition program in the country, including what the feds were doing.

Clay Henderson, an environmental attorney working on a book, totaled up what the program accomplished, you say.

The email he sent to me (noted) the state bought 1.8 million acres of land, and that established 14 state parks and 14 state forests.

Other accomplishments?

We had the SWIM (Surface Water Improvement and Management) program. … I also included Tampa Bay in it and Florida Bay. … (It) cleaned up the bays pretty darn good.

We did the land-use implementation for the commerce department. We then had the manatee zones. There were no dolphin protection zones; we did that as well. ...

I did the saltwater fishing license for the first time ever… did prepaid tuition. ...

We did a major transportation reform which is still in place today… the Sunshine (State) Parkway. We made that into an authority to help finance new expressways in the state of Florida.

The sales tax on services was a big controversy soon after you took office. Though it passed before you became governor, your administration implemented it, drew a huge backlash, and then sought its repeal. What happened?

It happened early in the administration. If I had any hindsight on it I would have asked for another year to study this thing since it wasn’t my creature; it was there when I got elected. But I didn’t do that, so there’s no going back. You’ve got to go forward.

Did that hurt you in your race against Lawton Chiles?

No doubt about it.

President George H.W. Bush appointed you drug czar? What was that like?

It was just a very different office. It’s a policy office, it’s really not an operational office. ... You do develop a budget which you take to the president for his approval, to be sure his goals are being met. Then that’s sent to Congress and the budget’s passed, and then you allocate the money the way the budget was adopted. And you’re out there encouraging federal agencies, governor’s offices, law enforcement, treatment people, education people how to spend that money properly and how important it is. So in essence you’re constantly talking to try to get the president’s agenda done with people who are not your employees. …

You met prime ministers, you met royalty, you went to state dinners, it was a totally different world. … It was great excitement, no question about it.

What do you think of the split in the Republican Party and of former President Donald Trump?

Well, I think I’m just going to just stick with the conversation we had.

Any ideas on how to repair the party?

A lot of times maybe issues have become hot-button, and it looks insurmountable when things become hot- button. And there’s nothing like time and conversations and actions to cause things to change. And I suspect the same thing is going to happen here. Whether it’s a week or month or a year, I don’t know.