After reading my colleague Dave Trotter’s excellent Sunday editorial on Reubin Askew, I became sentimental about the days when Florida groomed real progressive leaders. The 1970s were glory years for the state. We pioneered “Government in the Sunshine” and unlike the 2000s where ALEC, the NRA and the James Madison Institute dictated policy, our leaders were independent and far sighted. Governor Askew, ranked by Harvard University as one of the ten best American Governors during the 20th Century led the way, but we also had Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham, Buddy MacKay, George Stuart, George Sheldon, Ken Jenne (before his unfortunate scandal in Broward County), Mike Abrams, Phil Lewis, Harry Johnston, among other leaders that came of age during the decade.
In the 1970s Florida was the envy of the nation. A dream state with a budding progressive movement related to women’s issues, the environment, health care and public education. Florida was the most progressive southern state and long before the Villages spurned a generation of right wing senior activists, the condos of southeast Florida were filled with activism led by New Deal veterans. The legislature in those days was as defiant and obstinate as today, even though the Democrats held a large majority.
Governor Askew had numerous progressive initiatives blocked by the conservatives in the Senate but took his case directly to the Florida people and won a resounding reelection despite a well funded right wing propaganda campaign in both primary and general elections. Askew also bucked the legislature by backing several ballot initiatives that made Florida a desirable destination for new residents, businesses and tourists.
Bob Graham, one of the “doghouse Democrats” along with Buddy MacKay and a few notable others that had bucked the conservative leadership of Dempsey Barron and his cronies in the State Senate became Governor after Askew defeated the same forces that tried to foil Askew. Chiles in the meantime was working hard in the US Senate.
At the same time the Florida House was producing many progressive leaders who would continue to fight for strong environmental and growth management laws as well other progressive measures. Most of these leaders are now long gone from elected office.
During the 2002 Attorney General’s race, I reminisced with George Sheldon regularly about this era and asked why we weren’t producing these types of statesmen anymore. We didn’t have many potential statewide candidates of quality and figured we as a party had reached rock bottom, but we hadn’t. Sadly, whenever I spoke of this era to large groups they would shake their heads. The era was long gone.
Rod Smith, the current FDP Chairman had a fondness for this era of Florida Democrats. One day in 2005, when I picked him up at Palm Beach International Airport, we began discussing Askew. Later that day Smith gave a speech to the Palm Beach DEC about the leaders of this era, and also the forerunner of this legacy, Leroy Collins. Most of the audience seemed to not care. They had either grown comfortable with Democrats who simply talk big but don’t act the way they should in public office, or had become so blinded by hatred towards the other side that none of our past mattered.
We can do better as a party, and have done better. Florida Democrats need to reconnect with their legacy and recent history to become truly great again. Alas, the current crop of “leaders” we’ve developed have none of the vision or statecraft to pull this off.