With an election around the corner and a chance to liberate Florida from the 16-year dominance of a single party who has essentially plundered this state and its citizens. During the period of GOP dominance in state elections (1998 to present) Florida has become a national laughing-stock. Today, we look at two great living Florida Democrats – Buddy MacKay and Bob Graham through the eyes of two biographies written about these men.
Once upon a time Florida’s Legislature was an effective body and the State House was largely progressive. Florida moved vastly ahead of other southeastern states thanks to the leadership and vision of those in public office, especially two Governors Reubin Askew and Bob Graham. Unfortunately, throughout much of this “golden era” which lasted from 1970 to 1986, the Florida Senate became an impediment to positive change.
State Senator Dempsey Barron (D-Panama City) was at the same time both an ideologue and yet the master of the art of horse-trading. He ruled the Senate with an iron fist as Rules Chairman (and Senate President for two years in-between). But Barron was a complex figure. To merely label him a pork-chopper as many today do would be wrong. Barron certainly had alliances with the pork-chop gang, but his ascension to leadership may have done as much to break up the pork-chop gang as any event outside of reapportionment after the Baker v Carr decision on reapportionment. Prior to the Baker decision for example, Dade County had as many House members as Liberty County. Hillsborough as many as Washington.
Much to the chagrin of some in Bay County, Barron while ideologically aligned with the pork-chop gang was reluctant to funnel state dollars back home. In that sense he was a more consistent and principled conservative than Charley Johns, William Shands and the leader of the pork choppers Ed Ball the inheritor of the DuPont fortune. Barron was also discernibly more moderate on racial issues than the pork choppers had been. (W.D. Childers, Pat Thomas and George Kirkpatrick were more in-line with the pork chop philosophy of reactionary conservatism mixed with pork barrel spending at home, but even they were not authentic pork choppers.)
Barron was first elected to the Legislature in 1956. Despite his reputation as a conservative southern Democrat, Barron was one of a handful Democratic House members in 1957 who voted to sustain Governor Leroy Collins veto of the infamous ‘Last Resort Bill,’ which said that if one black child entered a white public school, they’d close the school. Barron then moved to the Senate in 1960 where he became a powerhouse.
During the 1970s Barron controlled the Senate and by extension State Government. He could tell Governor Askew to “stay the hell out of our (the Senate’s) business,” and get away with it. Despite the historic disputes Barron had with Askew he gave the Governor critical and somewhat pragmatic support to the desire Askew long had to reform the state Judiciary.
To become Senate President you had to be personally approved by Barron. While he served only two years himself in the post, he controlled the Rules Committee and the Senate for the better part of twenty years. So thorough was his control he elicited regular newspaper columns in the newspapers south of I-4 which pit the Northern part of the state (the South) versus the urban centers along I-4 and I-95. Barron once claimed that the negative columns from urban “liberal” papers such as the St Petersburg Times and Miami Herald were worth thousands of votes in his conservative panhandle district. As a one of a kind Senate power broker Dempsey Barron stirred up passions among Floridians typically reserved for Governors or US Senators.
Two Democrats stood up to Barron while State Senators with stronger conviction than all others- Miami’s Bob Graham and Ocala’s Buddy MacKay. In time they would become two of the greatest leaders in this state’s modern history. They along with the handful of other Democrats opposed to Barron were known in and around Tallahassee as “The Doghouse Democrats.”
Buddy MacKay is one of the most influential and underrated figures in Florida’s development from backwater to thriving mega-state. His impact has been under-appreciated by Democrats many of whom undercut his Gubernatorial campaign in 1998 in an attempt to selfishly preserve individual political influence both within a post Chiles/MacKay Democratic Party and in a Bush administration. These Democrats played a large part in producing one of the most disappointing and damaging election results in the modern history of the state we love.
The political autobiography MacKay has written with the assistance of Rick Edmonds, “How Florida Happened” is a must read for anybody interested in Florida politics and public policy. From his days as a “doghouse Democrat” opposing Dempsey Barron’s control of the State Senate to becoming the most important and influential Lieutenant Governor in Florida’s history, the book is an eloquent look at the state’s changes and the politics behind them.
Challenges such as the blocking of the Cross Florida Barge Canal (which would have run right through MacKay’s Ocala based sprawling rural district), managing explosive growth and a general transition from rural, agrarian economy to a culture of innovation and economic development around urban areas are all discussed at length in the book. MacKay was one of a group of reformers in the State Senate that worked hard to cull the excesses of the conservative leadership of the Democrats led by Dempsey Barron in the chamber. Barron as we’ve discussed above ran the legislature’s upper chamber as if it were a personal fiefdom.
MacKay delves into his campaign style and how he learned to appreciate “vertical counties” in his statewide campaigns- those large condo complexes in southeast Florida that had more voters than many of the counties in his State Senate district. In time he would become exceedingly popular in southeast Florida, though his political positions would cause him problems in the areas he formerly represented in the State Senate. MacKay went to Congress in 1982 after redistricting split Bill Chappell’s district. Two years earlier MacKay had lost statewide in the Democratic Primary for US Senate. His voting record in the House was left of center but his focus was on Florida and promoting the state’s interests- sadly this is something many members of congress in BOTH parties no longer use as a guiding compass.
Any reader of this book will quickly understand and appreciate how MacKay applied his intellectual capacity and curiosity as well as his general interest in promoting Florida’s interests and protecting Florida’s citizens. Our state’s remarkable growth in the 1970s and 1980s owed itself largely to the selflessness of policy makers and the willingness of those leaders to risk political defeat in order to promote the state’s interests. When Buddy MacKay teamed up with Lawton Chiles to run for Governor in 1990 it was the culmination of an era of great leaders in the state. Chiles’ 1994 re-election victory over Jeb Bush in 1994 was the last hurrah’ for the leadership style that had made Florida the envy of the nation.
The defeat Buddy MacKay suffered at the hands of Jeb Bush in 1998 is one of the state’s modern tragedies. A man who had given his life to making Florida a better place, and had worked tirelessly to promote Florida’s interests in Washington and abroad was beaten by a carpetbagger whose sole interest in attaining Florida’s Governorship was to promote a personal ideological agenda that put national and family considerations above Florida’s. Our state still has not recovered from this election as an arrogant and entitled legislative majority enabled Jeb Bush’s agenda and continues to serve in the majority without distinction and largely without making a positive impact. It is a tragedy not only for Florida, but for the Republican Party which prior to Jeb Bush’s elevation in the mid 1990s was a more moderate party made up largely of political reformers and others who sought to preserve Florida’s unique qualities and promote the state.
Longtime Palm Beach Post writer S.V. Date wrote in 2004 the most definitive biography of McKay’s fellow doghouse Democrat, Bob Graham. From his days as a state legislator onward Graham exhibited a seriousness that few public officials in the state or even the nation had. After working with MacKay and others to combat the Barron faction in the State Senate he decided to run for Governor.
In his race for Governor, Graham was an underdog. He also faced organized opposition from many of his fellow Senate colleagues who were aligned with Barron. After the first primary, Graham trailed Attorney General Bob Shevin also of Miami but defeated Shevin in the runoff and Republican Jack Eckerd in the General. As Governor, Graham continued Askew’s progressive reform programs and initiated the most significant growth management reforms for a state who was gaining a 1,000 new residents a day on average during his tenure.
After winning reelection by an almost 2-1 margin in 1982, Graham set his sites on the Senate seat held by Moderate Republican Paula Hawkins whose 1980 election was largely a fluke based on Reagan coattails. Graham’s election to the Senate by a wide margin in 1986 largely united the Democratic Party. While the opposition he had faced from the Barron faction had impacted governance at the state level, he was now freed from those shackles. Furthermore, Graham’s popularity did more to dent the impact of the legislature’s dinosaurs more than anything else. The group would revive for two years with Bob Martinez as Governor and increased conservative Republican numbers in the Senate after the 1986 election. But Barron’s own defeat in the 1988 Democratic Primary for renomination effectively ended the era.
As a US Senate, Bob Graham always fought for Florida first. Unlike other politicians who sought the national spotlight, Graham’s tedious work and commitment to the state were appreciated by voters in both parties. He never faced a tough reelection. Before retiring in 2004 and a failed Presidential bid he warned the nation about the potential perils of military adventurism in Iraq. Most of his fellow Senators did not listen, not did the majority of the public. We have paid the price ever since.
Bob Graham and Buddy MacKay were two great Floridians whose careers and legacy were grown out of the toughest circumstances a progressive reformer could face. Both excelled and this state is better for it.