Column: Tampa and Florida politics and a dog named Mascotte

Mascotte was the family dog of Gov. Bob Martinez and his wife, Mary Jane Marino. [State Archives of Florida]
Mascotte was the family dog of Gov. Bob Martinez and his wife, Mary Jane Marino. [State Archives of Florida]
Published Dec. 7, 2018

The passing of George H.W. Bush has unleashed a flood of nostalgia about his presidency and a lost sense of honor and dignity. The Bush presidency, 1989-1993, overlapped Gov. Bob Martinez's term in Tallahassee, 1987-1991.

George and Barbara Bush seem at first glance very different from Bob and Mary Jane Martinez. The Bush and Pierce families were New England patricians, Episcopalian and educated at elite schools. Bob Martinez and Mary Jane Marino grew up in West Tampa and Ybor City, grandchildren of Spanish and Sicilian immigrants. They attended the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida. He taught social studies in Tampa while Mary Jane became a librarian at King High School.

The Reagan revolution brought the two families together. In 1980, Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush as his running mate, and the team triumphed. In Tampa, Bob Martinez was elected mayor in a non-partisan election.

In the spring of 1983, Mayor Martinez received a fateful phone call. President Reagan invited him to the White House. "I paid my own way!" Martinez interjected during an interview. Arriving at the White House, he was escorted to the Oval Office. Vice President Bush was also there. The president had been well briefed. "Bobby," the leader of the Free World began, "You're a lot like me. We were union leaders. I was once a Democrat. You were head of a teachers' union. We would sure love for you to become a Republican."

In July 1983, Tampa's First Family strolled into the Hillsborough County voter's registration office and formally switched parties.

In 1986, Bob Martinez ran for governor, but the odds seemed stacked against a Republican who was a Hispanic Catholic from Democratic-leaning Tampa. He joked that in the Panhandle he was introduced as "Bubba Mar-tee-NEZH." Yet Martinez triumphed, becoming only the second Republican elected governor in modern Florida history.

Mary Jane Martinez became close friends with Barbara Bush when the latter visited Tallahassee in 1988. Governor Martinez had appointed 33-year-old Jeb Bush as head of the Florida Department of Commerce. Jeb's mother came to Florida to campaign for the Republican ticket and her husband, who was running for president.

"I was terribly nervous," confessed Mary Jane. "The vice president's wife was coming to spend the night!" They bonded, becoming instant friends when Barbara requested an iron and ironing board, so she could press her own dress!

The Martinez family brought their beloved basset hound, Mascotte, to the Governor's Mansion. Named after a popular 1880 French opera, Mascotte figured prominently in the interconnected histories of the City of Tampa and the Martinez family.

Henry Plant christened one of his steamboats Mascotte because of his fondness for the opera. In the 1890s, the vessel saved Tampa's cigar industry with a timely shipment of tobacco smuggled from war-ravaged Cuba. A likeness of the ship adorns Tampa's city seal. But for the governor, the vessel was even more personal. His grandmother Isabel Carreño came to Tampa aboard that very steamer as a 17-year-old immigrant.

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Mascotte, the adorably naughty basset hound, loved to welcome visiting school children and chief executives. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush paid a visit to Tallahassee to see Florida's First Family. When the doors to the president's limousine were opened, the affectionate Mascotte — nicknamed "Dog One" by security officials — leaped into the back seat, sitting upon the commander in chief. Fortunately, the president loved dogs.

Bob and Mary Jane Martinez took great pride in their love for Latin cuisine. They ran the fabled Cafe Sevilla in West Tampa, where Bob's father was general manager. As President Bush approached the elegant dining room table, Mary Jane gasped when she noticed Mascotte munching upon a bean sprout sandwich. The Secret Service ordered the elaborate spread to be confiscated and destroyed. Dog One entered the dog house.

President Bush and Governor Martinez's destinies paralleled in other ways. Governor Martinez was defeated for re-election in 1990, largely because of his decision to support a service tax. President Bush was also a political casualty when he renounced his famous pledge, "Read my lips: No new taxes!" declaration. In both cases, the governor and president were victims of an electorate and a political climate that was becoming hyper-politicized, disdaining political compromise over ideology.

We should also remember that the Bush and Martinez marriages emphasize the power of love, relationships and commitments. Their lives and loves also affirm Harry Truman's bromide: "Want a friend in Washington? Get a dog!"

Gary R. Mormino serves as scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.