Today we look at the 1970s and two brilliant books about the era in Florida politics. Senator Robert McKnight’s The Golden Years… The Florida Legislature, ’70s and ’80s , and Martin Dyckman’s Reubin O’D. Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics (Florida Government and Politics).
The 1970s were a glory era in Florida politics as the fast growing state became the envy of the sunbelt with a smart progressive leadership under Governors Reubin Askew, and Bob Graham as well as a proactive cabinet and cooperative House of Representatives. Government in the Sunshine and other progressive reforms were the handiwork of enlightened and talented Democrats who hold no equal in today’s Florida. But they were also made possible by Republicans whose independence and understanding of Florida made them valuable allies for Askew, Graham and others in the fight against an obstructionist State Senate and other conservatives.
House Minority Leader Don Reed statesmanlike in his approach and willingness to work with Democratic leaders of different stripes on issues like Tax Reform, Government Reform, Environmental Protection, Judicial Reform and Growth Management. In fact, with political corruption at record levels, the traditional Florida GOP was part of the solution working with good government Democrats to solve the problem and pass new laws that safeguarded public funds and the public trust. This was the case at both the state and local levels. With liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans a governing coalition emerged that saw state and local Government as a means to combat Florida’s problems.
Unfortunately, “Operation Switchover” which was part of Nixon’s Southern Strategy began the long process of transitioning the reactionary elements of Florida’s Democratic Party into becoming Republicans, where they would eventually dominate the party. Prior to the late 1970s, the Florida GOP was a moderate party made up largely of transplants from the Midwest and Northeast. The party was especially strong in Orange, Pinellas, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Democrats were divided between conservative and liberal wings (with very few moderates) and in the late 1960s and early 1970s the liberal wing, dominated by urban Miami had come to gain control of party primaries for statewide office and much of the party apparatus. The 1970s were the greatest era in Florida Government precisely because neither party was run by conservatives and the needs of the state associated with growth were being confronted aggressively and proactively.
Throughout the 1970s, moderate Republicans continued to be a force in the state. The moderates hailed from what was becoming known as the “Republican Horseshoe” an area running from Naples through Pinellas County, around I-4 (Hillsborough and Polk Counties were still reliably Democratic) up into Lake, Orange and Seminole Counties, and then back down the east coast beginning in Brevard through the coastal areas of Palm Beach and Broward Counties. These counties provided the bulwark of President Gerald Ford’s victory in the 1976 Florida Primary over conservative Ronald Reagan. Many observers pointed to Florida as the reason Ford held on against the organized conservative tide that backed Reagan and swept the Southeast (with the notable exception of Mississippi where future RNC Chair and Governor Haley Barbour held the state for Ford thanks to the fact their were so few registered Republicans at the time.)
At the local level, Republicans were responsible in many areas for slow growth ordinances and strong environmental laws. Republican leaders in counties such as Martin and Collier emphasized quality of life issues such as air and water quality in order to fuel economic growth and spur new businesses. A culture of innovation and promotion of small business also grew out of this period, with Republicans promoting and protecting ma and pa shoppes and start-ups in contrast to today’s Florida GOP who is centered around protecting big business.
As the 1980s approached the GOP was growing in Florida, but it’s makeup while changing hadn’t become completely radicalized. That transformation would take place in the 1990s, and era which was still off in the distant future.
Buy The Golden Years… The Florida Legislature, ’70s and ’80s from Amazon.com
Former Senator Robert W. McKnight (D-Miami) has written the most definitive account of the Legislature during this period that is widely available. We strongly recommend it as a must-read about the period. The book paints a picture of a legislature motivated less by partisan and political considerations and more by a need to take action to help the growing state. While their was factionalism within the legislature, particularly among Democrats who spanned the political spectrum from hard-right to far-left, the needs of the state were generally prioritized over purely political considerations. In that period of time the Republicans who as we note above tended to be more moderate than many Democrats from outside southeast Florida were constructive players in governing and pushing through progressive reforms against the opposition of conservative Democrats.
Martin Dyckman who covered the Tallahassee scene for the St Petersburg Times from the 1960s until the 1990s, has written a masterpiece about Florida political history that should be required reading for every current state legislator. Dyckman starts his narrative in the late 1960s as Florida’s constitutional revision is taking place. Claude Kirk is the Governor, one of only three Republican Governors to win the South post Great Depression (all were elected in 1966 or 1967) and Florida’s first GOP Governor since the Reconstitution era. Kirk’s eccentric nature moved Florida forward on some counts, notably the environment where he deferred to Nathaniel Reed, but backwards in other aspects such as labor relations, social policy and civility. Askew’s election in 1970 was badly needed, and served the state well.
As Dyckman demonstrates in this work, the 1970s were a glory era in Florida politics as the fast growing state became the envy of the sunbelt with a smart progressive leadership under Governors Reubin Askew, and Bob Graham as well as a proactive cabinet and cooperative House of Representatives. Government in the Sunshine and other progressive reforms were the handiwork of enlightened and talented Democrats who hold no equal in today’s Florida. But they were also made possible by Republicans whose independence and understanding of Florida made them valuable allies for Askew, Graham and others in the fight against an obstructionist State Senate led by Dempsey Barron and other conservatives.
Dyckman makes a very strong point about the switch from multi-member districts to single-member districts. It is a point I have often made privately that we have developed more narrow minded and ideological, reflexively conservative legislators since the change in the early 1980s. Dyckman tells story after story in his book that illustrate the points I have made above but perhaps he gave his most memorable story about Askew’s speech to the pro-big business Council of 100:
The ballroom of the luxurious Breakers resort (in Palm Beach) was filled with men in tuxedos and women resplendent in gowns and jewels. They were powerful, prosperous people unaccustomed to the sort of tongue-lashing that Askew, speaking without a script, was about to give them. “We don’t have too many poor people in this room tonight,” he said, contrasting the glittering scene with the poverty of migrant labor shacks at nearby Pahokee. Florida “isn’t so beautiful for a lot of other people, and there’s no reason for it, Florida being so affluent as it is,” he declared. “This is not the end of tax reform,” he told them, “but the beginning — the beginning of a new day.”
Askew’s rhetoric in this speech was nothing unusual for him. The Governor’s strong courage in his convictions steered Florida through a very difficult transition and had more of an impact on making the state worth living in than any other Floridian in the 20th Century. He took on the legislature’s reactionary factions in both parties and took his case repeatedly directly to the people of Florida. Time and again the people voiced strong support for Askew and reigned in the excesses of the legislature.
Today’s leaders could learn a great deal by simply reading this book or McKnight’s excellent work which shows the seriousness with which legislators of that period approached governing a transforming state.