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Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew dies at 85

Former Gov. Reubin Askew talks about the future of Florida during a lecture presented by the Florida Law Review on Oct. 12, 2012.
Former Gov. Reubin Askew talks about the future of Florida during a lecture presented by the Florida Law Review on Oct. 12, 2012.
Published Mar. 14, 2014

Reubin Askew, one of the most popular and effective governors in Florida history and a fiercely determined advocate for tax fairness, racial equality, managed growth and ethical government, died early Thursday in Tallahassee. He was 85.

He had battled pneumonia and hip replacement surgery in recent months and was admitted to Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare on Saturday, where he suffered a stroke. He died shortly after 3:30 a.m. Thursday, surrounded by family members.

A Democrat who served from 1971 to 1979, Askew is a transformational figure in the modern history of Florida, the first governor to serve two successive four-year terms and a champion of open and accessible government.

"He changed the trajectory of the state for the better," former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham said.

"Reubin Askew never underestimated the people of Florida, and that's why they loved him," said former U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus, an Orlando lawyer who was an aide to Askew. "He had certain gifts God gave him and believed he had an obligation to use those gifts to help other people."

Historians generally regard Askew and LeRoy Collins (1955-61) as the two strongest governors in Florida history.

The Askew years were marked by explosive growth and school desegregation, and in a memorable University of Florida speech in 1971, he supported busing as a means to end segregation, adding "and rightly so" to the speech text. He also blunted the impact of an antibusing straw ballot question in 1972 by adding a second one that opposed a "return to a dual system of public schools," and voters approved both.

The Askew era also was the time of Watergate, which along with scandals that led to resignations of two Florida Supreme Court justices and indictments of three Cabinet members, strengthened his call for landmark ethics legislation, which many consider his most significant accomplishment.

Askew resisted pressure to be George McGovern's running mate in 1972 and ran an ill-timed and underfunded campaign for president in 1984, having passed up an earlier run in 1976 when voters had grown to distrust Washington and wanted an outsider. They instead chose another Southern governor, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who later persuaded Askew to leave his high-paying job at a prestigious Miami law firm to hold the Cabinet-level post of U.S. trade representative.

Askew's last campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat in 1988 ended abruptly when he walked away in disgust over what he said was the need to endlessly seek campaign contributions. Demeaned by having to constantly ask for money, Askew said he felt like a "panhandler" and a "professional beggar," and soon turned to teaching in the state university system, where he spent the rest of his life.

"He could never get elected today for one reason: money," said lawyer-lobbyist Steve Uhlfelder, who met Askew in the 1970 campaign when he was a student body leader at the University of Florida.

• • •

As Florida's 37th governor, Askew appointed the first black Supreme Court justice of a Southern state; appointed the first black member of the Cabinet since Reconstruction; integrated the Florida Highway Patrol; created five regional water management districts; made the Public Service Commission appointed rather than elected; called for rehabilitation rather than the jailing of alcoholics; and pardoned, along with the Cabinet, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two black men wrongly convicted by an all-white jury and sent to death row in the killing of a gas station attendant in Port St. Joe.

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In his last year in office, 1978, Askew led a statewide crusade to block casino gambling, as voters once again followed his lead.

"I didn't think he would be this strong this long," said his long-time nemesis, former Senate President Dempsey Barron of Panama City, in 1978. "He has exhibited a kind of morality in office that causes people to have faith in the governor's office to a higher degree than we have seen in a long, long time."

Askew and Barron, a master manipulator of the levers of power, clashed intensely and bitterly on various issues, such as Askew's high-level appointees to state agencies.

Both men hated to lose a political fight. It was political and personal, and Barron famously once ordered Askew to "stay the hell out" of the Senate.

"Barron thought Askew was a patsy, less than manly, and a goody two shoes who couldn't fit in a man's world. It was really very bitter," recalled Askew's former top aide, Jim Apthorp. "In the end, they respected each other. But not till the end."

• • •

A 1978 poll showed that Floridians thought more highly of Askew than the most trusted man in television, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. Columnist David Broder of the Washington Post called Askew's years as governor "a model of courageous, constructive leadership."

Known as "Reubin the Good," Askew was a populist risk-taker whose election seemed far-fetched at first.

Few people outside his hometown of Pensacola had heard of him when he ran for governor in 1970. But he easily defeated Claude Kirk, a bombastic and erratic Republican who underestimated his rival, dismissing Askew as a "mama's boy" unprepared for high office.

"I love my mama," was Askew's deadpan reply.

A devout Presbyterian, Askew believed that men are "called" to serve specific roles in life.

"Running for office was something I knew I had to do," he once said. "I feel God has plans for the world, and men. If I had any talent, I had to use it for public service."

His unlikely 1970 running mate was Tom Adams, an elected secretary of state with an established support network that Askew lacked, helped by his ties to the rural clique of legislators known as the "pork choppers" that Askew deplored. Askew would toss Adams off his ticket four years later because of ethical lapses, such as using state workers to tend to his farm, that raised the possibility he might be impeached.

After sweeping 57 of 67 counties in 1970, the tall, reserved Askew quickly set about fulfilling the central promise of his candidacy to modernize a regressive tax system by making businesses pay more taxes and give average Floridians a break by repealing sales taxes on household rent and electricity.

"The day is past," Askew said, "when the poor person's, the little person's voice is not going to be heard in Tallahassee."

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a liberal Miami legislator who served in the House at the time and later was president of Florida State University, recalled Askew's tenacity on the tax issue.

"I thought he was a little bit too timid," D'Alemberte said. "But once he embraced the corporate profits tax, I thought, 'Wow, maybe he's got the stuff to be governor.' "

In confronting what he saw as an unfair tax system, Askew faced resistance from the powerful Winn-Dixie grocery chain and a business lobby, Associated Industries of Florida. Facing down his critics, Askew called out AIF for secret membership lists and refused to keep two boxes of melons sent as a gesture of goodwill to the Governor's Mansion by a Winn-Dixie executive.

During the tax campaign, Askew simplified the issue by appearing in a TV ad holding two identical Sears shirts: one bought in Florida, where the company paid no taxes on its profits, and one purchased in Georgia where the company contributed half a million dollars to the state.

"When I showed them the shirts on television, they understood that," Askew said in a 1998 interview as part of a state film series on "Great Floridians."

The corporate tax has been under steady attack since Republican Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010, when he promised voters to phase it out.

Askew's TV ad was effective, but he won on the tax issue by going over the heads of legislators and persuading voters to follow him. It was an approach he would use again to achieve landmark ethics reform.

• • •

Askew's greatest legacy may be summed up in one word: "sunshine," the term for his insistence on more openness in government and higher ethical standards for elected officials. He believed that public officials' decisions would have more credibility if people trusted the decisionmakers more.

"He really believed that people in public service should be above reproach," said George Sheldon, who worked for Askew as a legislative aide and followed him to the governor's office.

When the Legislature rejected Askew's call for ethics reform, he took his case straight to the people and won passage of the state's first ballot initiative in 1976: a constitutional Sunshine Amendment that declared that "a public office is a public trust." It requires elected officials to make a "full and public" disclosure of their financial interests.

So enduring was Askew's reputation for integrity that today's Florida Republicans say he set a standard for others to follow.

"Reubin Askew became governor of a state that was run out of a smoke-filled room and turned it into a model of open government," said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville.

Askew's reputation for integrity was further enhanced by his rejection of two types of patronage common at the time: He demanded a moratorium on issuance of new liquor licenses and insisted that judges no longer be chosen based on political favoritism but recommended on merit by new nine-member nominating commissions.

He also vetoed a "no-fault divorce" bill, signed the first law giving 18-year-olds the rights of adults and tried in vain to get Florida to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

Former aide Apthorp said Askew was able to pass much of his agenda because of a group of ambitious, idealistic Democrats in the Legislature such as Marshall Harris, Richard Pettigrew and D'Alemberte of Miami, Terrell Sessums and Louis de la Parte of Tampa, and Kenneth "Buddy" MacKay of Ocala.

• • •

Outwardly reserved, Askew appeared aloof from the political system. He had no interest in the Capitol's time-honored customs of hunting, fishing, chewing tobacco and drinking with good old boys in Tallahassee.

A teetotaler, Askew banned liquor from the Governor's Mansion during the eight years he lived there, which prompted one incredulous guest, Vice President Spiro Agnew, to ask, "Is he serious?"

Askew started his day with a glass of orange juice and brewer's yeast and drank buttermilk before bed.

He did not smoke or swear and seemed self-righteous at times. The New York Times dubbed him "super-square;" then-state Sen. Gerald Lewis of Miami called him "pious and sanctimonious" for vetoing the no-fault divorce bill.

But there was never any doubt where Askew stood.

Former associates described him as strong-willed and stubborn and trusted him not to waver or abandon them in the face of political pressure.

"What he said is what he meant," said Guy Spearman, a lobbyist and Capitol fixture for decades who got his political start working as a legislative liaison in the governor's office, twisting arms and cutting deals when necessary, and waiting until late at night, after Askew had disappeared, to meet colleagues for drinks.

Aides recalled that Askew kept roll-call vote sheets in his desk, showing where lawmakers stood on his key issues. If others did not see things his way, he would make phone calls to their hometown editorial writers, many of whom Askew knew on a first-name basis.

"All he had to do was make a couple of phone calls," Spearman recalled. "Askew was tough when it came to dealing with the Legislature because he had such an appreciation for it."

Askew was willing to play hardball to win, such as when he needed 90 votes in the 120-member House to place the corporate profits tax referendum on a statewide ballot in 1971 when no elections were scheduled.

Former legislative liaison Jim Smith, who later served as state attorney general, said Askew threatened to deny cherished road money in the districts of resistant lawmakers.

"We would take people down to his office to meet with him. We'd have a map sitting there of DOT projects, and we'd politely suggest that 'State Road 50 might not get resurfaced next year,' " Smith said. "I guarantee, Reubin would deny that. He would say, 'I don't remember that.' "

• • •

Reubin O'Donovan Askew was born Sept. 11, 1928, in Muskogee, Okla., the youngest of six children, and literally an "Okie from Muskogee," the title of a country song by Merle Haggard when Askew was in office. His mother, Alberta, divorced his alcoholic father and moved the family back to her hometown of Pensacola, where young Reubin shined shoes, delivered magazines door-to-door and charted his path to political success.

At Pensacola High, students nicknamed him "The Governor" because he seemed so certain where life would take him.

Askew went to Florida State University on the G.I. Bill, became president of its student body and maintained a lifelong devotion to FSU, where he taught courses for two decades at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, created in 1994. Traveling statewide in his Buick station wagon, Askew taught at every school in the university system in a classroom career that began at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton.

He was an Army paratrooper from 1946-48 and served in the Air Force from 1951-53, and received his law degree from the University of Florida in 1956, where a political institute bears his name.

He was first elected to the state House in 1958 after a campaign in which a heckler hurled a common epithet of the times and called him a "n----- lover." He responded: "The trouble is, I don't love them enough. The difference between you and me is I'm trying to overcome my prejudices and you're not."

Askew became a state senator in 1962 by ousting Philip Beall Jr., a Democrat who embodied the antiquated system of rural North Florida dominance and unequal representation known as the Pork Chop Gang.

Askew believed that fast-growing Central and South Florida were entitled to an equal voice in the Legislature. At one of his last public speeches, to FSU graduate students in the ornate old Senate chamber in 2013, a frail-looking Askew recalled those years of battling the recalcitrant old guard even though his Pensacola roots were deep in pork chop territory.

"I don't think they ever forgave me," he said with a smile.

Askew suffered pneumonia in December 2013 and underwent hip replacement surgery after breaking his left hip in a fall. His final public appearance was in December at the Florida Supreme Court, at a tribute for the late Justice Arthur England, a former Miami tax lawyer who wrote the language that became the corporate profits tax.

"He knew the law, and I am forever grateful that he served on this court," Askew said of England. "I now have to go, but y'all don't have to get up."

He said he had to leave to teach a class at FSU.

Askew is survived by his wife, the former Donna Lou Harper, and their two children, Kevin and Angela, and several grandchildren.

Former Times staff writers Craig Basse and Martin Dyckman contributed to this report. Information was used from "Reubin O'D. Askew and The Golden Age of Florida Politics" by Martin A. Dyckman; "A Talk with Reubin Askew" by Jan Godown, "Research in Review," Florida State University, 1998; and "The Florida Handbook," 1977-1978, by Allen Morris. Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.


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