Flashback Friday: Underdog Bob Graham pursues the 1978 Democratic Nomination

Editors note: With Gwen Graham’s entrance into the Governor’s race this week, we have some recollections of the origins of the 1978 race where Graham’s father, Bob emerged from dark horse to Democratic nominee. Noted Florida historian and author Robert Buccellato gives this vivid account of the origins of the Graham juggernaut that would win five statewide elections in Florida over a 20-year period beginning in 1978. 


By Robert Buccellato

The man who was the presumptive Democratic nominee for nearly two years was the state’s top cop. The charismatic, bright, yet distant Attorney General Robert (Bob) Shevin. The Miami born, tough on crime Democrat seemed a perfect fit to succeed the popular “Reubin the good.”  In a cabinet at times known for its apparent corruption, Shevin’s obvious integrity made him very attractive to voters. Elected to the Florida House in 1964, he moved to the upper chamber two years later during the mini Republican wave of 1966, before winning his statewide post in 1970.

For most of the primary season Askew had stated quietly that Jim Williams was the best qualified candidate to succeed him. However, Williams was known politically as “the silent man” and disliked asking his peers for support. As a result he left plenty of political capital on the table unspent. When the author asked him to identify one outstanding event during that long and historic election, Williams merely replied with a chuckle “Well, I wasn’t really in it that long.” It seems strange that a sitting Lt Governor wouldn’t be a leading contender for his party’s nomination. But the motivated candidacies of the other outstanding candidates in the race severely undercut Williams support from the onset.

Also running for the governorship was the young and handsome Bruce Smathers, son of the former United States Senator. Smathers was currently the Secretary of State and would have to resign in order to run for the top office. He had earned a place of honor in state history for leading the effort to preserve the historic capitol building (actually refusing to vacate his office in the capital to prevent the legislature from demolishing it), and was only 31 years old when elected to the cabinet.

Hans Tanzler, the “born again” mayor of Jacksonville, was a bold administrator and a political powerhouse. During his twelve year mayor ship he had presided as the last mayor under the old city plan and effectively made the transition from promising city into a thriving consolidated metropolis. A reform minded chief executive, he oversaw the construction of a sprawling downtown satellite campus of Florida State University and a massive new public health facility. During these years the city sewage regulation was put into effect and his successful cleanup of the St. Johns River was universally praised. During his first bid for re-election Tanzler earned his greatest political trophy with his landslide victory over legendary former mayor turned governor Hayden Burns. Burns had put up a tough bid to win back his old job and a possible return to the governorship. It would be the only political threat Tanzler would ever experience during his tenure. By the mid-1970s the governorship looked like a real possibility.  

Perhaps most intriguing was the presence in the race of the state’s only living Republican governor, running as a Democrat. Originally Claude Kirk announced that he would run as an Independent since his former bitter rival Jack Eckerd “Owns the Republican Party.” The bad blood between the two Florida Republicans dated back to remarks Kirk had made during their combative race for the Republican nomination in 1970.

“He made comments about me and Eckerd” said Reubin Askew during an interview in 2013. Askew laughed about it, shaking his head knowing the past remarks were baseless.

“I got over it from the start, Eckerd got over it after a while, but his wife never got over it. After Eckerd lost the nomination, he helped me a lot, behind the scenes.”

Eckerd worked hard to bring his supporters over to Askew’s camp and the result was a bitterly divided Republican base that year.  Now eight years later, Kirk was ready for a political comeback. He deemed his best chances to achieve this difficult task was to run as an Independent, which seemed remotely possible for a time given his statewide name recognition. The problem was that in order to get on the ballot as an Independent he had to supply thousands of signed petitions. This ultimately proved too great a task for Kirk, and he finally entered the crowded Democratic field.


The Republicans

By contrast the Republican field was down to just two individuals: drug store magnate and frequent candidate Jack Eckerd and multi-term Congressman Lou Frey. Their respective campaigns were about as different as the men themselves.  Eckerd ran a well-financed and slightly cautious campaign, already carrying himself as the party’s nominee. Frey in contrast ran a largely populist and energetic campaign. He was nearly twenty years Eckerd’s junior and his campaign staff decided they would capitalize on this by having Frey canvass the state.  

Accusing Eckerd of buying the governorship and refusing to quit despite most polls giving his opponent a clear advantage, Frey would knock on nearly a half a million doors around the state. His favorite anecdote during these impromptu meetings with voters was to inform them that he refused to vote for the recent congressional pay raise. “My wife is still mad at me” was his punch line. Frey’s campaign literature attempted to paint the race as “Frey’s people vs. Eckerd’s Money.” However, his skillful doorway pitch never really caught on and before long most Republican strongholds were sporting Eckerd’s posters.

With a personal wealth of over 80 million dollars, Eckerd would donate a million dollars to his own campaign. His headquarters were a massive office building that housed fifty paid staffers, the combined total of nearly all other gubernatorial staffs. He was shuttled around the state by his own private plane, earning early the support of many civic groups. His pro-business message was simple, “Tallahassee sorely needs a businessman.” He turned down several invitations by Frey to debate instead preferring to keep the focus on a well-crafted ad campaign. This was his third statewide campaign, and he only entered the race after a lengthy exploratory campaign by political analyst Arthur Finkleste showed he was electable.

Eckerd also had an additional asset this time around to help balance his impressive business credentials, his two years as head of the Ford White House’s General Services Administration. This plum government assignment, which Eckerd performed effectively, bolstered his resume and provided him with an insight in the inner workings of government he previously lacked. Everything seemed to point in the early months of 1978 to a potential Eckerd victory. Save for that one specter that always seems to linger over candidacies like Eckerd’s. The gimmick of an unknown candidate divorced from power and the establishment, able to build momentum simply by projecting an image as someone drawn from the people. Who is not only one of the people, but who is actually able to electrify the masses into action and contribute towards the personal ambitions of the candidate. Since the folkish campaign of Walkin Lawton, it had made a huge comeback in American politics, epitomized in the fifty primary campaign of outsider turned President Jimmy Carter.  

Eckerd’s caution seems to give the impression that he sensed this looming sea change. Frey’s door-to-door campaign also seemed to offer an insight that the public was looking for something. His calculation was correct, the well-oiled candidacy on Eckerd would indeed by defeated by an outsider who could capture the magic of Lawton Chiles, it just wasn’t going to be him. Even Claude Kirk, who spent the previous two decades presenting himself as a successful insurance executive and member of the jet set. Now tried to transform himself into something of a southern folk hero. Wearing army boots, a gift from Tom Adams, and a campaign message that proclaimed himself the general Patton of Florida. When a reporter asked him at an event “What position do you see yourself in?” Kirk replied with glee “Hero!”

They were all correct in their assessment of the public’s mood and how it might pertain to their candidacy. But, they were all wrong in their methods to capture the public’s adoration. All except a shy dark horse state senator who was trying desperately to win the office that had allotted his father a generation earlier.  He was perhaps the most unlikely populist candidate ever, and his transformation from a highly educated man of wealth into an average Joe took some time. Yet, Bob Graham like so many other candidates who place their faith in a gimmick was propelled into office because he coupled that gimmick with hard work. He was so successful that year because his candidacy had nearly nothing to do with him and everything to do with you.


The Dark Horse

Former Governor Bob Graham likes to tell a story about his youngest daughter Kendall being completely distressed by the news that her father was running for governor.

“Just after I announced she told Adele, that I couldn’t do it, that she wasn’t moving to Tallahassee. That all of her friends were here in Miami and that she wasn’t going to live in the Governor’s mansion. My wife looked at her and said “Honey, there is no way on earth your father is ever going to be elected governor.”

Nearly a year later in the euphoria of victory, as the entire graham campaign was celebrating this historic and unpredictable moment in state history. Adele, now the first lady elect of Florida looked over across the sea of happy faces towards an angry and saddened Kendall. No one including the candidate’s inner circle and the candidate himself thought Bob Graham had much of a chance. How could he? The history of Florida politics had spelled out the improbability of a candidate born from its urban south ever reaching the Governor’s office. Graham’s own thirst seemed to have been rooted in that past.

Ernest Graham was born on Feb 10th 1885 in Croswell Michigan to Philip and Mary Graham. A boxer and accomplished wrestler in college, he would carry a broken nose his whole life.  Following college he worked first at a gold mine in Montana before becoming a masterful bookie, whose personal system was so effective he was prevented from placing bets in most places. He ran a mine for a time in Deadwood before marrying his first wife, Florence, a school teacher. The future governor’s siblings were born in quick session Mary in 1913 and Philip in 1914. In 1917 Ernest enlisted as a private and served in the western front as part of the 309th Engineer corp. By the time of the armistice, he was a captain. This title would earn him a lifelong nickname of “Cap”. In the late 1920’s when the price of gold dropped and the drainage of the Florida Everglades was nearing completion, the family moved to pioneering Miami.

In south Florida, Ernest managed the Pennsylvania Sugar Company. There also another son William was born and a coral rock mansion was built. After the great depression, the sugar company folded its interests in the state and gave Graham a severance of 7,000 acres. This allowed him to setup his own cattle based empire and in time built it into a respectable family fortune.

Just as Earnest Graham’s financial life was beginning to settle down, his personal life took a tragic turn when his first wife died of cancer. Perhaps to fill the void in his life Earnest turned to politics. He ran for and lost a seat on the Dade County Board of commissioners in 1936. Before winning a seat in the Florida state Senate he met and married his second wife Hilda who would go on to bear him a son, D Robert Graham Junior in 1936, who would one day achieve the political greatness his father was denied. Earnest Graham’s failure to win the Democratic nomination for the governorship would have a lasting impact on his son. Likewise his brief tenure in the State Senate would create within young Bob Graham a romantic attachment for the old chamber that once housed the political fortunes of his hero. Even as a former US Senator and during his own daughter’s successful campaign for the US Congress, Graham still looked upon the State Senate with affection. The Historic Capitol’s preserved senate chamber in particular was, after all, the place his parent’s marriage blossomed and where he was brought so often as a little boy.

Bob Graham got into politics in 1966 winning a seat to the Florida House of Representatives. Just a few months later his future running mate would join him in the legislature. Unlike Wayne Mixson, however, after just four years and two terms in the Florida house Graham would make the leap to the state Senate, where he would serve with great distinction for the next eight years.

Towards the end of 1977 State Senator Bob Graham, in an ambitious effort to increase his recognition statewide publicly undertook a series of 100 workdays this was designed to allow the gubernatorial candidate to experience firsthand the hardships and adversities of  the common Floridian in their typical workday. This strategy was based in part on Graham’s experience as a high school teacher for Carol City High School in Miami Lakes.

From then on Graham would mark this one day as his first job as his first workday. Throughout the summer and fall of 1977, State Sen. Bob Graham worked as a bellhop, a poop scooper for the Ocala breeders and even placed speaker wire into the ceiling of the Gov.’s office in the new capitol building, something not lost on the state’s media. As 1977 turned into 1978, Graham continued to work a vast assortment of jobs. He was a lobster fisherman, a dive boat operator, a short order cook, a social worker, and for one night a member of the Tallahassee Police Department. He would pick tomatoes in Naples, work as a waiter at the wine cellar in Jacksonville, and performed admirably as Santa Claus on December 20, 1977 in Coral Gables.

“When I decided that I would run for governor in late 1976, I decided to do a hundred of them for the final 15 months of the campaign,” said Graham.

Towards the end of the 1978 gubernatorial race he had done just that. Yet as he closed in on Shevin’s lead and formed a balanced ticket by selecting Wayne Mixson, one ambitious workday still remained. It would prove one of his most difficult and one of his most praised. Bob Graham, the millionaire would join the ranks of the state’s unemployed. To wander the streets desperately looking for temporary work and to discover firsthand how badly the bureaucratic system in the state had become as it was woven with jaded civil servants. One instant that always seemed to stick in his mind was when he looked for the restroom in a Tampa office of State employment service and found that the men’s bathroom was for employees only. He tried the door and it was locked, his imagination became filled with images of the unemployed having to fill out form after form with their legs crossed. Eventually he was able to get a job that day delivering office furniture, it would end up being enough for him to make twelve dollars after several hours of hard labor. This meager salary was put to good use, a bed for the night at a YMCA in St. Petersburg at a local Salvation Army Mission.

The following day as the final part of his exercise, Graham had to apply for food stamps. Even this simple task was made difficult when after walking the streets of Tampa in a hard rain, the food stamp worker didn’t bother to take out the big wad of juicy fruit from her mouth while having a conversation with him. Whenever he asked for assistance or another form she would openly roll her eyes at him. It was a demoralizing experience and a true culture shock for the successful state senator. But it provided him with invaluable insight into how horrible the system could be towards those that it was designed to serve, and it armed him with a clear understanding of the common man’s blight.

Perhaps it was the very fact that this Harvard educated senator even tried, that attracted the imaginations of so many Floridians. That this man would roam the streets of Tampa with $15 in his pocket and one change of clothes in a paper sack looking for work for two days, seemed to speak to a longing that many of us seek from our public officials. This workday more than any other might very well have earned him a lifelong respect among the average blue collared workers of the state. It may have helped the public transformation of D Robert Graham Junior, the shy mild manner State Senator, into Bob Graham, that legendary everyman politician.  

That most rare of Florida politicians who looked natural in work clothes and in a suit. Just as his future running mate, the retiring House representative, was a mixed bag of contradictions: a farmer with an Ivy League education, a conservative who was for Urban Renewal.

As Graham began to close in on the Democratic nomination, he started to look into possibilities for his lieutenant governor. Time and time again, his mind turned towards Wayne Mixson.

“There has been some theory that you select a lieutenant governor who is different from yourself. The only significate difference between Wayne and myself is the fact that he was from north Florida and I was from south fl. But we had a very similar background, including an educational background that was very similar,” Said Graham.

The two men began to talk about the possibility of a Graham Mixson ticket. There was some slight differences in opinion, yet there was a great deal of common ground in their views.

“When Wayne and I laid out the campaign agenda we identified three areas that we wanted to emphasize economic development. The economy was very much on people’s minds at the time. We as a nation and a state in the late 1970’s were going through a recession. Two: education, we recognized was extremely important in its own right. But, also a fundamental part in any long term economic development strategy. Third, the protection of the state’s natural resources. Wayne and I worked on all of these issues in the legislature. So they weren’t by any means new to us and we already had some ideas in terms of their solutions,” said Graham.

Thus, the Graham Cracker ticket was formed and state history was about to be made.   

One comment

  1. […] This is part 2 of the series. Part 1 can be found here. […]


%d bloggers like this: