Once upon a time in Florida, a wealthy well-connected conservative with little grasp of the issues but outsize support from real estate and commercial interests toppled, for the first time in state history, a sitting U.S. Senator — effective legislator, friend of labor and confidante to FDR Claude Pepper — by using a sly combination of Red-baiting and race-baiting that would later become the backbone of the so-called “Southern Strategy.” This enterprising young rake, George Smathers, even personally advised Richard Nixon on his gambit’s finer points. It would be another black eye on the record of the North Florida-centric RPOF and its rural redneck base, except for the fact that Smathers was a Democrat. From Miami.
Ripe for the reading during the current “battle for the soul of the party” (a cliché that feels true), James C. Clark’s Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary reveals some difficult lessons from the last one, and for Florida Dems, they go down like a tall glass of orange juice when you’ve just brushed your teeth. This highly readable academic study of the political demise of the South’s sole New Dealer in the Senate is instructive and topical indeed.
For instance, if you’re running for the upper house of Congress, the one that ratifies international treaties and confims major appointees to the Departments of State and Defense, don’t get too sophisticated with your foreign policy positions. Because although the world is a complex place, “The Florida crackers are not interested in statesmanship, and they are not interested in Europe and world affairs. They are principally selfish and they think the Senator should be devoting his time and talent to the narrow interests of the state of Florida only,” as one aide put it, in response to a prolonged post-War peacemaking visit to Moscow. Better not to tell many uncomfortable truths about the prevailing consensus, like “With conservative Democrats and reactionary Republicans making our foreign policy as they are today, it is all we can do to keep foolish people from having us pull a Hitler blitzkrieg and drop our atomic bombs on the Russian people,” as Pepper did before 18,000 people gathered in Madison Square Garden.
Also, you might not want get too worked up about social justice issues. If you go around talking about poverty, marriage equality, institutional racism, or a woman’s right to choose, you’ll come off like a crazy left-winger — totally unelectable. That’s why Gorgeous George had the right idea when he stood against national health insurance, racial integration, federal aid to education and the lifting of Taft-Hartley, all of which Pepper was for. And when Smathers refused to be photographed with any black person, yet distributed pamphlets in black neighborhoods under cover of darkness calling Pepper a Communist, well, maybe that was a little gauche, but that’s how the game is played. Florida is centrist, Fair Deal territory; don’t get too carried away with the bleeding heart stuff.
It’s probably a good idea just to keep it light in general. That was Senator Pepper’s miscalculation when in 1949 he said “It will be a spirited campaign, with his youth and handsome charm, energy and money, not to speak of all those selfish and shortsighted forces who will array themselves with him. But those people haven’t been winning lately, and the people have a way of understanding the issues. I suspect they will pretty clearly understand this battle and its significance.” Besides the fact that today, “those people” have been winning, recent Florida history is full of telegenic know-nothings who have attained national standing over on the Republican side: Connie Mack IV, Marco Rubio and Pam Bondi come to mind. Maybe they have the right idea. Charlie Crist anyone?
These are the lessons that many FDPers might draw from reading about George Smathers’ 54-45 upset over the two-term incumbent, “Florida’s fighting liberal” as the Chicago Star called him. But our lot as progressives is not to roll over and let the party slide even more to the center for the purpose of sneaking away with one electoral victory at the cost of saying what we mean, a doubtful strategy in any case given the returns in the campaigns of Jim Davis, Bill McBride and Alex Sink, milquetoast Davis Islands moderates (though excellent people) all.
Especially at a time when one-party rule has crippled progress and perverted our state’s democracy while Democrats in Tallahassee have sat there like a book of wet matches, and when economic conditions have degraded to the point where millions of formerly middle-class folks are without health insurance or food security, it is the job of Florida progressives to help grow the electorate and give working people something substantial to vote for, not mollify the aforementioned “Florida crackers.” As Kartik wrote recently, we’ve tried the “me-too” strategy of sidling up next to the Republicans in the hope that some of the cash and influence the moneyed establishment lavishes on them might trickle down onto us. It will never work. Populism can.
LeRoy Collins, Lawton Chiles, Bob Butterworth and Reubin Askew all forged long, productive careers in Florida politics taking risks and tending to the public good. And, lest we forget, Claude Pepper made a comeback in 1962 and served ten terms as a liberal Congressman from Miami Beach. The next great statewide Democrat will not inherit their mantle by ducking the real issues and playing nice with Big Sugar and the Chamber of Commerce.
As Professor Clark demonstrates ably, the wrong guy won the Democratic primary in 1950. It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t happen the next time around.
Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democracy Primary by James C. Clark
University Press of Florida, 2011. 206 pp.