One sunny spring afternoon, I got it in my head to walk to the Historic Capitol building. This was a near weekly pilgrimage for me, considering that my own office was a mere block away at the old Leon County court annex. Not to mention that my own boyhood hero, my Grandpa Walt Young served there and its modern counterpart for twenty years. This was the place he would take me when I was a boy, pointing out the Governors he knew as they stared back at me from their portraits, and onto the floor of the Florida House as it was in recess. Looking up to the chamber’s domed ceiling, my tiny eight year old frame stretching itself to take it all in. “This was where he once worked? This is where we make laws?”
Whenever me took family members on a tour of the capitol building (no trip to Tallahassee was complete without one), he would always go to great pains to make us feel comfortable there. “This is your Capitol, go to see YOUR leaders, don’t let them feel too comfortable.
Now a husband and father, my curiosity still takes me there, long after old age made such trips to the capitol impossible for my ninety plus grandpa. Yet, his enthusiasm was so contagious that every time I or someone else in our family went there, it was like a home coming. Since our first visit there, I had begun interviews countless figures from Florida’s “Golden Age” and got to know many of them while writing my book on the Florida Governorship. Regardless of whom they were legislative aides, former Governors, senate pages, or retired newspaper columnists. All of them seemed to collective paint a era of Florida Government now completely foreign to our current process.
Everything seemed so much simpler and far more approachable. Those that poured into Tallahassee during session were part time legislators, not full time politicians. Some had to skip meals to afford the meager existence the state’s Per Diem afforded them. A common sight in those days was seeing lawmakers eating bagged lunches on the front steps of the capitol. They weren’t even a uniform system of providing them with offices until the 1970s. My Grandfather actually had to share an office with Buddy Mackay that was really a converted broom closet.
So you can imagine my surprise and mild amusement when I wondered into the Florida Capitol building plaza that sunny afternoon to see a mass exodus take place from the lobby floor of the new capitol building. Everyone was flooding the plaza, making a mad dash to their cars. I had spent a few moments in the tranquil stately rooms of the Historic Capitol, so this unrestrained run for freedom, of legislative aides and members acting like high schools after the bell, was a bit of a culture shock.
Yet, given the fact that it was the middle of session, I still expected to find many of the members still in the chambers. Upon entering the House Gallery I only two pages. “There was an issue with the speaker system. So they voted to go into recess for the rest of the week.” It was only Wednesday.
“Oh Hell!” yelled my grandpa over the phone, “Thats when we would have started Shouting.”
A few days later I interviewed Former Governor Wayne Mixson, and he told me a story about one particular legislative overnight-er back in the mid 1970s. According to the rules, the body has to adjourn for the night before midnight. Yet, on this occasion several members were involved in a heated debate and didn’t want to stop as witching hour approached. So someone jokingly suggested that the body vote to unplug the chamber’s clock…It passed.
Colorful stories like that remind me of how splendid a time the Golden age of Politics was in Florida. Historians and bloggers of Florida History have started spinning these tales into fable, and for good reason. They are the stuff of legend. Like an unknown State Senator walking across the length and breath of the state trying to win his party’s nomination to the US Senate (Lawton Chiles). Or his good friend and equally unknown colleague in the State Senate; travelling across the panhandle with him, trying to talk him out of it (Reubin Askew).
“People were calling me and telling me Lawton was losing it,” Governor Askew would say with a smile. Getting lost in the simple madness of it all. He was just a few months away from winning the governorship while Chiles was well on his way to becoming a Florida Folk Hero and US Senate. In an age of expanding Campaign War chests (2014 we saw our first million dollar FL House race) and ever growing public dissatisfaction, these stories are a burst of fresh air. Even for those who lived them. I would frequently stare at these figures with such amazement when they would push during their stories to just savory their own past. Still trying to catch their breath from the history they witnessed. This progressive era from 1967 to 1987, that twenty years period were we as a state and a people transformed ourselves, wasn’t just our golden age, it was theirs as well.