Florida Democrats, Race and Civil Rights; 1964 to today

Unfortunately I have been busy the past several days so I have not gotten around to posting anything new since last Wednesday or commenting on a thread that developed on one of my historical posts over the weekend. The debate on the “Snapshot of Florida Politics in 1979” posting devolved into little more than several people blaming Civil Rights for the fall of the Democratic Party in Florida.

As someone who counts southern history and politics as one of my long-term primary interests and has seen attitudes on race shift in my lifetime while I have also seen the partisan allegiance of many in rural Florida change over the just the past 15 years.

In 1996, when I campaigned for the Clinton/Gore campaign in counties like Gilchrist, Lafayette, Dixie, Madison and Taylor we still had a base of support among rural Democrats who had disagreed with but yet had accepted Civil Rights as reality. At that point in time Democrats could still win in the rural south (as evidenced by the number of legislative seats we held in rural North Florida and our control of every legislative chamber in the South outside of Florida and Tennessee) and yet Civil Rights had been in place for thirty years.

While it is true most Florida Democrats rejected Civil Rights in the 1960s, and even into the early 1970s (more on that shortly) the greatest era of Democratic domination in the state post Civil Rights era occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Republican gains in the legislature which had occurred in that angry period about Civil Rights in the late 1960s were reversed. In fact Democrats had more House and Senate seats after the 1982 election than in 1968, despite the domination Republicans were demonstrating in Florida’s Presidential elections.

Florida Democrats without the influence of  moderate groups like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) had bounced back running on good government, open government, environmental protection, economic empowerment and competence. Republicans by contrast were stuffy country club elites and even though Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and later George Bush won the state largely due to a backlash on race (the issue of crime which was highlighted by Republicans in this era was in my opinion directly related to race and was also very effective in southeast Florida among alleged “liberals” ) this did not translate on the state level where the GOP in some cycles left more seats unopposed than seats they actually seriously contested.

However, by 1994 the Republicans were well organized and ready to capture the state. What happened? I attribute the switch to the GOP in this state more to the migration of northerners concerned about taxes and other economic issues as well as “crime” something Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist exploited than to a shift in the south due to racial attitudes. Crime I do consider to be a racial issue in how it was framed but it worked to move NORTHERN migrants to the GOP column not native Floridians/Southerners. Jeb Bush spoke for these northern migrants as he was himself a carpetbagger who in 1994 showed a total lack of understanding or depth about our state when compared to native son Lawton Chiles. In time, Bush gained a greater grasp of Florida issues but in 1994 he was essentially running a carpetbagger campaign aimed to win suburban votes and those of religious conservatives.

While northern migration into Pinellas, Orange and Broward counties had made Florida the most Republican southern state by 1960 on a relative scale, like the rest of the region it remained Democratic. Claude Kirk’s 1966 Gubernatorial win and Ed Gurney’s 1968 race baiting US Senate campaign that defeated Leroy Collins gave the GOP two statewide officials and in the eyes of most national observers meant Florida was shifting to the Republicans. Also that year the GOP numbers peaked in the State Legislature. It would be twenty years before the Republicans would win as many State Senate seats  and twenty four years aided by the first voting-rights act influenced reapportionment before they would win as many State House seats.

In 1968, Florida Democrats and Republican alike were so concerned about race that when the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was pushed by President Johnson following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., only two Floridians in Congress (the liberal icon Claude Pepper and fellow Miamian Dante Fascell) voted for the legislation. Both US Senators and the other ten House members from the state voted “no” on the bill which guaranteed fair housing practices. Pepper had been in 1964 the only member of congress from east of Beaumont, Texas and south of the Kentucky/Tennessee border to vote for the Civil Rights Act. But in the 1960s, Miami was more of a northern city than a southern one, routinely giving large margins to national Democrats and rejecting George Wallace. It was the only place in the state with a true liberal streak in those days.

I suppose what I am trying to argue here is that while a racial backlash occurred in the late 1960s against the Democrats leading to Kirk and Gurney’s wins as well as George Wallace carrying a majority of Florida counties in 1968 (more on that later in the week) the party recovered in the 1970s and actually settled into a comfortable majority status. In the 1980s liberalism spread north from Miami into Broward and Palm Beach counties but still at a Presidential level, national Democrats could not garner a large number of votes outside of African-Americans and the three southeastern Florida counties. Hillsborough and Duval Counties in particular were becoming more and more conservative so that by 1994, Lawton Chiles had to run up huge margins in Broward and Palm Beach counties while turning out rural north Florida east of Apalachicola River to survive what was a massive Jeb Bush victory up and down I-4 among northern migrants, suburban voters and Orlando area fundamentalists. On the national level, Richard Nixon won 73% of Florida votes by using “abortion, acid and amnesty” against George McGovern and while Ronald Reagan and George Bush racked up impressive victories in the state during the 1980s, the 1990s saw a the emphasis of cultural issues in the state’s national elections begin to wane. Sure the GOP tried to play this card but in 1996 and 2000 they were unsuccessful.

Today’s Florida has large numbers liberals not only in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale metroplex but also in the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas as well as a growing number in Jacksonville. Crime and taxes the wedge issues used by Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s to flip this state aren’t as prevalent as they once were. To use the logic of the 1992 book Chain Reaction to apply to the new Florida is ill advised. When this book was written Democrats had lost 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections and the racial backlash against the party was seen as obviously in white northern suburbs as is in the rural south. Now we are in a place where Democrats have essentially carried Florida in 4 of the 5 last elections (regardless of your view of 2000, it cannot be argued that more Floridians INTENDED to vote for Al Gore than for George W. Bush) and the new playing field has a completely different set of issues than yesterday.

I will concede that since the late 1990s, North Florida has realigned in favor of the GOP largely on racial lines, and that the Presidential election returns from 2008 and 2012 show race based voting patterns between the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers outside of Tallahassee. However, in the rest of the state, race is no longer a major issue.

I found the discussion in the thread to be appropriate for the 1970s and 1980s but out of place in 2013. Perhaps for those in rural North Florida it is still pertinent but to the rest of the state it is a relic of the past.

7 comments

  1. Old Time Democrat · · Reply

    As a student of history myself, I am grateful for your forum to discuss how history may show some insight into where we are as Florida Democrats and how we got here.

    In this off-Presidential year election that we are facing us here and now you face a more solid conservative, reliable and dependable base of voters than in a Presidential election year that we just came off of.

    This last election, the President was helped by tons of money, an exited liberal-progressive coalition and a horrible opponent.

    But this is Florida, and you are missing the historic rumblings (abit short history) of the Tea Party that got Rick Scott elected in the first place and there is nary a thin hair of any Obama team left to help us Democrats fight the overwhelming power, money and influence of the Republican Party in Florida who has used and funded the Tea Party to fire up their base.

    And the economy is getting better.

    I disagree that the state is getting more progressive and liberal and central Florida is going to carry the day.

    Really?? How do you explain Tea Party Congressman Dennis Ross and his entire string of Republican Congressmenn that outnumber the Democrats 4 to one from coast to coast? And Florida House and Senate members and even the Florida Cabinet that is now solidly Republican for the first time since Reconstruction?

    If Central and South Florida was such a piece of cake, how come the Democrats are getting slaughtered?

    The main problem with you liberal-progressive “city slickers” is that you think the world revolves around you and you have no tolerance for those who don’t drink the left wing progressive “kool-aid” and you want everyone to jump off the bridge with you.

    You want everyone to believe in the “Progressive Utopia” and unfortunately you are in the minority and you are dragging the Democratic Party into oblivion.

    If you get out of your metropolitan cocoons, venture outside into the heart of Florida into the farmlands and study a little history you’ll realize that the State of Florida is much, much bigger than the small little world you all live in.

    First, you can’t ignore history…

    According to Wikipedia, since Florida became a state in 1845 “Florida was a strongly Democratic state before the Civil War, electing only candidates from the Democratic and Whig parties. It elected three Republican governors following Reconstruction, but after the Democratic Party re-established control, 89 years passed before voters chose another Republican.”

    What Happened to the Democratic party of LeRoy Collins, Haydon Burns, Farris Bryant, Rubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles?

    They understood what you progressives can’t get through your thick skulls.

    They have no idea what the “Old Time born and raised Florida Cracker Democrat” like myself is.

    When the “progressive liberal agenda” started becoming louder and taking control of the Democratic Party nationally and in Florida, those “southern” Democrats became disenchanted and the “southern strategy” of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan peeled away those “Florida Cracker” Democrats to turn them to vote Republican.(for the record, I voted for the long list of Democratic loosers McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry)

    Here in Florida, Governor (Republican) Claude Kirk broke that 89 year unbroken string of Democrats because of Democratic infighting and liberal Democratic policies. Askew and Graham came after that but Republican Bob Martinez exploited that rift again when conservative Democratic Primary looser, Jim Smith, did not endorse his liberal opponent Steve Pajcic and despite an overwhelming Democratic voter registration that still exists today, The liberal Democrat lost to the unknown Mayor from Tampa.

    The Conservative Southern Democrat and Florida Cracker from Polk County, Lawton Chiles, saved the Democrats again, but after that began the last 14 straight years of unbroken Republican Governor’s rule in Florida.

    I know you all don’t want to believe it, But what did Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton nationally and Lawton Chiles in Florida understand to break those Republican victories?

    They understood and understand the southern voter better that you will ever know.

    I didn’t agree at the time and still don’t but that’s why Democrat Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Because he knew and understood the pulse of the (southern) voter at the time and why he is as popular today as Ronald Reagan.

    Even though he has now said that was wrong and polls show even gay marriage as being OK there is not an overwhelming majority on that issue. It’s about even right now.

    So we are treading on thin ice.

    Why do you think your idol, Allison Tant did not want your liberal south Florida candidate Nan Rich to speak at the Florida Democratic Party’s biggest annual show of the year at the JJ Dinner in Hollywood few weeks ago?

    As much as you all are going hate it, the Democrats have a former conservative Republican Governor of Florida who has switched to now become a “MODERATE – PRAGMATIC” Democrat with statewide name recognition, who can raise $150 million dollars, who campaigned all over Florida for President Obama and who will have the President’s blessing and the President’s Florida campaign manager in ’08 -Steve Shale (who took Crist all over the JJ Dinner a few weeks ago) and who is wildly popular amongst the largest growing voting population out there (the Independents) who in this modern era of politics now actually decides elections…Mr “For The People” Charle Crist!

    Get used to it.

    Your liberal, progressive, South Florida woman, Nan Rich, has no prayer of taking this state back for the Democrats..

    We are just not there yet.

    And if you sit home and pout on election day because you didn’t get your way and Rick Scott gets re-elected then I know who to blame for 18 more years of Republican rule and this state will be damaged beyond repair because of you.

    So I agree with you, as the old proverb goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”

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  2. Feret · · Reply

    We must burn this house to save it. I am all for doing it the way Kartik, Susan Smith, the Meeks, the Randolphs and the other leftists want to. Then after Scott wins 62 counties and Republicans control every office in the state we can start over and reunite this party with its heritage.

    What bugs me about Kartik is how much he knows about southern politics and history yet he is willing to side with the liberals and yankees as they destory the state.

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  3. Maybe we’re making progress. In this post, Old Time Democrat didn’t call Nan Rich the South Florida Jewish woman. Now she’s just a South Florida woman. And Feret thinks the “liberals and yankees” are destroying the state.

    Good grief. I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: that the self-proclaimed crackers are racists and bigots, or that they’re so lame and out-of-touch.

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  4. Once upon a time Dems ruled Florida · · Reply

    I ONCE AGAIN AGREE WITH OLD TIME DEMOCRAT. KARTIK’S HISTORY IS TOLD FROM THE LIBERAL PERSPECTIVE. SOME TRUTHS HERE BUT LOTS OF FALSE ASSUMPTIONS AND GLOSSING OVER OF REALITY.

    THE TRAYVON MARTIN TRIAL AND THE REACTION OF SOME OF YOU PEOPLE TO THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT DECISION SHOWS THAT THE DISCONNECT IS STILL THERE. LIBERAL ELITES, THE CITY SLICKERS, GUILTY WHITE LIBERALS AND YES SOUTH FLORIDA JEWS THAT RUN THE MODERN, LOSING VERSION OF THE FLORIDA DEMOCRATIC PARTY STILL DO NOT GET IT. KARTIK KNOWS HISTORY BUT TWISTS ITS MEANING AND INTERPRETATION TO FIT HIS LEFT WING NARRATIVE AND CLAIMS THAT THE STATE IS GETTING MORE LIBERAL AND SAYING LOOK ALL OF FLORIDA IS LIKE MIAMI NOW WHEN IN REALITY WE ALL STILL HATE HATE HATE SOUTH FLORIDA. HE FIGURES HE CAN SEEM MORE INTELLECTUAL AND THAT WILL THROW UP OUR HANDS TO HIS INTERPRETATION AND TWISTING OF MEANINGS BY SAYING “YOU KNOW THE HISTORY WE DON’T SO YOU ARE RIGHT.” BUT KARTIK, YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY WHO READS HISTORY BUT YOU ARE ONE OF THE FEW TWISTING IT TO DEFEND LIBERAL DEMOCRATS. THE HISTORY IS ONE THAT SUPPORTS MODERATION AND CONSERVATISM.

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  5. we need to stop being so PC so scared to offend. anyonewho brings up these issues is a racist or sexist. anyone backs a white male over a African-American or female candidate gets painted as such. let’s have a mature discussion withoutthe intolerant name calling that has become commonplace on theleft

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  6. I love how KK takes historical events and twists/misinterprets the meaning. Astute political observers even liberals know the backlash blacks being Democrats have caused and that Obama severed all ties between the south and the party of the south. It’s amazing what he could do! The messiah brought the south and the Yankee party of Lincoln together finally! He’s a god like figure with mystical powers!!!!

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  7. Obama severed ties between the south and the party of the south? WTF???

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