Flashback Friday: The “Graham Cracker” ticket wins the 1978 Election

Editors note: With Gwen Graham’s entrance into the Governor’s race recently, we have some recollections of the origins of the 1978 race where Graham’s father, Bob emerged from dark horse to Democratic nominee and then to Governor.  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. 

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

By Robert Buccellato

1978 election part two

Graham Cracker Ticket

“The very first matter that has to be taken into account is if this individual can be governor of Florida” said Bob Graham during a 2013 interview. “Wayne without question fits that description”.

“I remember during the vetting process, that whenever I saw Adele she would keep looking at me and saying “you’re looking better all the time,” Mixson said during a 2014 interview

Both Wayne and Margie have a true love for Florida. That is something that always struck me about them was their profound love for the state. I was a bit bias from the beginning I wanted Bob to pick Wayne,” said Adele Graham.

It was around this time that Mixson’s local banker asked him if he was applying for a five million dollar loan, due to all the outside scrutiny his finances were starting to receive. The Graham campaign was meticulous and before long it became clear that both parties were moving towards a joint ticket.

Reporter Thomas Slaughter announced “Miami lakes senator picks Panhandle Farmer”. The vast majority of news coverage noted that this would allow Graham to balance the ticket. “He is a man of the highest standards of personal and public integrity” said Graham during the announcement and these traits determined his selection. “Mixson would have be chosen regardless of where he lived.”

This wasn’t the first modern gubernatorial race where the selection of a lieutenant governor was required, but it was the first time one of the candidates making the selection was not an incumbent governor. So there was a large degree of importance placed on the selection of running mates. For several days there had been speculation as to who would ultimately be Graham’s choice. Attorney General Robert Shevin had recently asked State Senator Jim Glisson to run with him. Mixson had stated a few days earlier that he was being vetted. But, Graham refused to confirm that a selection had been made.

Michael Richardson of the St. Petersburg times described the Mixson selection as a bold master stroke that would change the race permanently. “Bob Graham shook the Florida political landscape with his announcement: Wayne Mixson will be his running mate in pursuit of the Democratic nomination”. The article continued to proclaim that bringing Mixson on the ticket was the “number one personnel triumph” of the year’s race. Mixson was described as a curious blend of Old south Alabama good ole boy and the finance department of Columbia University. “Every Democratic contender would have enjoyed to no end the addition of Mixson, the article concluded.

“Frankly the question is not why did Graham want Mixson,” another article remarked” but, why did Mixson agree to go with Graham?” Others in the press felt Graham was rebuilding the winning Askew ticket of 1974. Both men did seem at first glance to be an extension of the Askew – Williams Administration. But before long it would be perfectly clear that these two individuals were something new, and fresh.

Both Graham and Mixson would spend the next eight years trying to govern, sometimes successful, and sometimes not, against the normal constraints of government. The Askew administration had made some powerful enemies in the business community. His successors would go to great lengths to include them in policy matters and to have them as constructive members in their administration’s agenda. However, they would not agree to measures that would limit or weaken either the environment or economic standing of the state’s people simply to bring in new business. This form of leadership would in time be known as the third way in American politics and it
was a moderate course that if managed properly could result in massive growth, the two candidates felt.

The normal selection process for a Lieutenant governor concludes a few days or even a few hours before you file. Because when you file you have to list who your Lieutenant governor will be. And most candidates have a habit of putting this decision of until the last moment of the pre-filing period. I did not think that was very smart. Because if you have enough time to select the perfect second spot on the ticket. By the end of the campaign you have this additional individual who can do all the things that you as the gubernatorial candidate can do. We made the decision to go with Wayne in February of 1978 a full six months before the filling fee. We were the only team to make an early selection,” said Graham in 2013

Together Graham and Mixson would be known as the “Graham Cracker” ticket. Gold Graham Cracker lapel pins were soon worn by the candidates and supporters. The announcement went off mostly without a hitch. Save for one tiny gaffe by a Tampa based DJ, who told listeners that Senator Graham had named a “marijuana farmer from north Florida” as his running mate. A few moments later he sheepishly corrected himself on the air “What I meant to say was that Mixson was a Marianna farmer, not a marijuana farmer”. The two men now with matching smiles and lapel pins made up the eighth team running for the top spot.

We were both campaigning at the same time. I was running for Florida’s first congressional district and Bob was running for the governorship. Wayne and I were both serving our final term in the house. I know Bob was going to be elected from the moment he selected Wayne. It gave that campaign the push it needed,” said Congressman Huto.

The Running Mates

This was a historic and colorful campaign. The first woman elected to both the Hillsborough county commission and the state public service commission was now attempting to be elected the Republican lieutenant Governor Paula Hawkins would come close to achieving this ambition and before long she would win a seat in the US Senate. The fiery and passionate 49 year old former housewife was one of the state’s leading Republican stars, already being groomed for high office. Her political career would be linked several times to that of Graham and Mixson. Betty Castor was described by the Pensacola News Journal as “the Spark” in the Jim Williams campaign, and played a far greater role then many previous running mates. Despite losing this race, the 37 year old would go on to become Commissioner of Education in a few short years.

Bob very wisely picked Wayne to be his lieutenant governor. I did not support Bob Graham at first. I was supporting Jim Williams. I thought the race was really between Jim Williams and Bob Graham in who was going to face Bob Shevin in a runoff. I thought they were both strong candidates. But, I liked Williams’ record as Lt Governor and his abilities as an administrator. I was the one who recommended Betty Castor to him,said Terrell Sessums in 2014

Perhaps the most interesting and controversial selection that cycle was made by the man who had a great deal of previous experience in the matter of running mate selection. Claude Kirk appointed his own lieutenant governor in 1969, and in 1978 he excelled himself by picking fifty one year old Mary Singleton, a Florida legend and one of the moral guiding lights of her generation. The middle-aged African American executive director of the state’s division of election had agreed to run with a man who made busing issue a chief part of his reelection campaign. When announcing his selection, Kirk, wearing a Scottish guard hat and smoking a long pipe remarked, “I told you, my pick would shock you all.” Mary Singleton didn’t look amused.

The fourth woman candidate running was Maria Kay, a 47 year old biochemist who along with her elderly bar owner running mate Leroy Eden, was never really a factor in the race. They did however make news when they informed the voting public that win or lose, they intended to marry each other regardless. The self-proclaimed fringe candidate would finish dead last.

According to Secretary of State Smathers Charlie Boyd was chosen due to his legislative experience as a member of the Florida house and his administrative experience as Mayor of Pembroke Pines. With a home base in Hollywood, Florida, Boyd stated that if Smathers was elected to the governorship his main responsibility would be operating an office for the Governor in South Florida. Jacksonville Mayor Hans Tanzler in an effort to make much-needed inroads in the states highly populated Democratic strongholds of South Florida and its Spanish-speaking populations, selected as his running mate Manuel Arques, a Cuban born businessman with no prior political experience. Throughout the entire election cycle Tanzler had his running mate campaign solely in the counties of Broward and Dade due to their sizable Spanish voting populations. Attorney General Shevin’s choice of a running mate was Jim Glisson, a stocky, youthful faced man with wavy red hair and a complexion known for its pink undertones and heavy concentration of freckles. A tough-on-crime legislator, he was instrumental in promoting Shevin’s help stop crime program back in 1975. While an active member of the Florida Democratic Party he had switched from the Republican Party two years prior. A move that was widely seen as a calculated attempt to be Shevin’s running mate, something he always denied.

“I just felt that I had a broader philosophy than the average member of the Republican Party. I was talking about bringing blacks and expanding the party. To look after the needs of the elderly and getting away from looking after the interests of banks.”

Some in the media compared this political odd coupling to Neil Simon’s Felix and Oscar. The slightly stuck up but genuine overachiever Shevins as Felix and the easy-going and sluggish sports reporter Oscar being represented by Glisson. Shevins openly expressed embarrassment in the most recent legislative session when his running mate added on an amendment opposed by many state environmentalists, a key support group for Shevin’s, to a bill that was sponsored by former Senator and now key opponent Robert Graham.

Shevin told me to do what I thought was right,” said Glisson soon after the press smelled blood in the water. However, the amendment which he eventually withdrew would have required the state to compensate property owners for loss of land values that resulted from enforcement of a number of state-sponsored environmental laws, an amendment that Graham said publicly would have gutted the law. Despite representing one of the most conservative legislative districts in the state, Glisson was an unabashed progressive on racial issues. He sponsored a bill that would make Martin Luther King’s birthday a nonpaid state holiday and liked to point out that he was the only member of the state Senate who had a black aid. As the Democratic primary election turned into the Democratic runoff election, Glisson would become increasingly boisterous about racial issues, growing critical of what he perceived to be his opponents less evolved views on racial equality.

Potentially Controversial

Jim Glisson and Wayne Mixson were speaking at a joint event during the heat of the primary season, as Shevin’s political fortunes were starting to decline.

“He said publicly that I made a racial comment while we were talking backstage.”

Mixson takes a moment, looks past the moment, there is almost instantly a look of disappointment on his face, and the good natured governor shakes his head.

“Glisson didn’t do many favors to the Shevin’s ticket. I don’t know why he said that.”

The remark that Glisson claims Mixson made was a truly derogatory comment about gaining a vast majority of the African American vote for Graham. The word Glisson claims Mixson used will not be mentioned here, but it doesn’t take a wealth of imagination to figure out the word used. The Glisson comment made headlines across the state and was for a time a potentially devastating political controversy that ultimately went nowhere. Due in large part to Mixson’s natural integrity and his ability to remain above the nonsense. Mrs. Mixson remains this time vividly-

“I was a professor at Chipola and one of my students was an African American minister. He had previously invited me to come and speak to his church. Well you could imagine how worried I was, because it was a predominantly black church and Wayne had been publicly labelled a racist by Glisson. He invited me to come into his office and pray before we went to meet the congregation. Once we went out and I was introduced, the minister had multiple members rise and say something kind about Wayne. It was rehearsed and it brought tears to my eyes, it was planned that way.”

 

It is a wound that still seems to be felt from time to time, a scar from a combative statewide race. But, ultimately it is the legions of individuals large and small who stood up for Wayne Mixson without being summoned that still today moves them so deeply.

“I was able to withstand it because I knew it wasn’t true. The campaign wanted me to go on the television station in Panama City and Pensacola, to answer this accusation. I was never more eloquent in my life, said Mixson.

The trademark smile returns and his mood changes again.

“Dempsey Barron and Senator W.D. Childers came along with me and echoed my points. It didn’t have legs, we put a stop to it. But, it was scary there for a week.”

Primary Season

Following the announcement on March 30 the team and their wives embarked on an air tour across the state to bring  the ticket to the people in Orlando and Miami, and in each location there was a continual theme that these men were not just a balance ticket, a liberal and conservative but of traditionalist “This is a campaign of like-minded Floridians coming together and working to not only solve major issues that face the state and the nation but to find common ground in tackling these solutions”. Once their final legislative session ended on June 2 the candidates eagerly hit the campaign trail again making stops throughout the state, opening County headquarters like the one in Jackson County and Miami-Dade, which would in time become as it is in every campaign hubs for volunteers to come together, to let their enthusiasm show, and to be recharged throughout the primary.

By then the campaign was kicking into full gear and towards the end of a long road to the nomination. To say that there was discomfort, between the two chief campaigns for the Democratic nomination that year would put it mildly. Robert Shevin, long the Democratic front runner, released a barrage of attacks on both Mixson and Graham that at times made the usually cheerful Mixson visibly angry.

This is no way to run a campaign, Mixson said on his way to a political rally in Gainesville.

Shevin accused Graham of voting for legislation that costs Floridians $44 million. Shevin has admitted he would’ve voted for most of the same proposals. I would have voted for these things myself said Mixson

Both Graham and Mixson became particularly frustrated when Shevin released an ad claiming that Graham was somehow soft on crime, Shevin’s key issue with voters. The candidate’s busy schedule was interrupted so that they could make rebuttal advertising to some of Shevin’s claims, and while things began to turn around for the Graham- Mixson candidacy, the months of August and September were not ones that either candidate would wish to relive again. Florida television stations soon withdrew Shevin’s ads from the air following complaints by the Graham campaign that they were inaccurate and not long after Secretary of State Bruce Smathers enthusiastically came out in support of the Graham candidacy.

By the time of the first primary the race had narrowed down to Bob Shevins and Bob Graham. Bruce Smathers garnered 8%, while Jim Williams and Hanz Tanzler were tied at 12%. Claude Kirk finished at 6%, and Leroy Eden just shy of 14,000 votes finished at 1.3%. In the Republican field Jack Eckerd cruised to his party’s nomination with 63% of the vote.

Runoff Election

By early October enthusiasm as well as momentum was on the side of State Senator Bob Graham and his cheerful running mate Wayne Mixson was beginning his Mixson blitz throughout Central Florida. This involved swinging through and in some cases crisscrossing from town to town. Mostly riding on a campaign bus that had on its side in big bold letters, Mixson for Lieut. Gov.” Sometimes he traveled by private car or airplane to a separate event. But mostly during the blitz he was able to stay with the humble bus which seemed to be more to his liking and style.

Wayne Mixson would frequently speak to groups about his desire for them to “see Florida the way I see it”. In the week leading up to the October 5 runoff election a reporter from the Jackson County Floridian joined Wayne and Margie Mixson on the campaign trail. Following them on their journey for the next two weeks in perhaps one of the most detailed, minute-by-minute account of a statewide candidate running for office in that decade. It represents not only Mixson’s known openness, but also his willingness to engage with people of different views and his grasp for knowledge.

On the day of the runoff election, the first Thursday of October 1978, Wayne Mixson voted early, casting a ballot in his home precinct. Wearing a short sleeve button-up shirt and tie, while exiting the curtained booth he smiled for photographers before being driven along with Mrs. Mixson to Tallahassee. There they took part in the victory celebrations. The Graham- Mixson ticket would soon be named the party’s nominees. Coming one giant step closer to their goal of electing Bob Graham, the first south Floridian to the governorship and Wayne Mixson, the first Jackson County resident elected to the lieutenant governorship.

The early returns predicted the Graham-Mixson ticket had upset Shevins by a slim margin. This unofficial percentage resulted in state newspapers calling the race for the Miami Lakes Senator and Jackson County representative. Not long after the Attorney General issued his concession to Bob Graham, the margin of victory was predicted at around 54 percentage points.

I want to thank the people of Jackson County and the Panhandle for the support they’ve shown Bob and myself. “I couldn’t have done it without those people and I love them all, Mixson said shortly after the Associated Press had proclaimed them the winners of the Democratic nomination. Before a packed ballroom at the Tallahassee Hilton, the new nominee smiled brightly and urged his wife Margie onto the speaker’s platform. S

“I couldn’t have done it without this lady either,” he said before raising his fist up triumphantly, and then with his index finger immediately turning it upon his smiling wife, who quickly embraced him in front of a sea of supporters

Less than one third of Floridians voted in the Thursday runoff primary. The first in Florida history, as the legislature had changed the date of the runoff. It normally fell on a Tuesday, in regards to the state’s Jewish population who were celebrating their high holidays. It was the second time in recent years that the second-place finisher in the general primary would go on to outdo the front runner and win his party’s nomination.

I think he ran a great race, and he certainly surprised me to say the least. I predicted it was going to be a 55 to 45 election. But I predicted it was going to be the other way,” said Bob Shevins to the Associated Press right after he conceded the race. “Unfortunately, I had the wrong guy with the 55.”

When the Democratic primary runoff finished that night Bob Graham and Wayne Mixson had won an impressive victory, garnering 53.5% of the vote and just a little under a half a million votes to Robert Shevins 46% percent; also he was able to consolidate some of the more conservative supporters of Hanz Tanzler and Smathers.

November

As late as October random polling was still calling the race a toss-up in most counties. While the momentum was clearly on Graham’s side, many in the panhandle were torn between the two team (even with Mixson on the ticket). North Florida was overjoyed by Wayne Mixson, but the “liberal” label had been thrown a few times on Bob Graham and some looked at him with mild suspicion. They needed some convincing before they would pull that lever for Graham, but the images of a sweaty, blue jeans wearing Bob Graham toiling in some forest or on some tract of farm land did much to win them over.

In hindsight many claim the race was never really close in the panhandle or central Florida. The workdays were gaining such good coverage and the addition of Mixson was so acclaimed that the race was something of a foregone conclusion by early October.

On the evening of November 7 the Graham-Mixson team picked up 56% of the vote in Florida to become the next governor and lieutenant governor of the state. Jackson County showed support for its favorite son by voting the team to victory in that County by a margin of 8 to 1. When asked by the Jackson County Floridian about this, Wayne Mixson humbly replied that evening, while flying home on a chartered jet It says to me that I am most appreciative and grateful to Jackson County. I am very confident that the vote margin will again hold up as the single biggest percentage given to any candidate in any County throughout the whole Gov.’s race. I want to say again how much I appreciate the people for this kind of confidence in myself and Bob Graham.”

The margin did hold up, and it would become legendary, making his name synonymous with the Panhandle. The Learjet was finally brought into the hangar at Marianna airport a little after 4 PM. Lieutenant Governor-elect Wayne Mixson, his staff and Mrs. Mixson soon to be the Second Lady of Florida, exited the plane to find over 1000 people waiting to welcome them home. The town Mayor eagerly shook their hands and presented them the key to Marianna. With a smile he proclaimed that Wayne had already won the hearts of the people of Jackson County and across the state. “Whoever, I know better than to give a key only to Wayne!” The mayor then presented an identical one to Margie Mixson.

The local high school band was there and apparently had been playing for several hours to keep the spirits of the crowd up, while they all waited eagerly for a glimpse of the tiny jet in the crisp autumn sky. As Wayne Mixson stepped towards the microphone he took a few seconds to savor the welcome received from his home base. Closing his eyes and smiling, while his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister all looked on with pride. Then he opened his eyes and said with a smile,

“There is going to be a big party in Tallahassee on January 2nd, and all of you are invited.

One comment

  1. Mark Lynn · · Reply

    This was the first election I can remember, although somewhat vaguely. My mom was a Shevin supporter. I’ve read that Eckerd regretted picking Hawkins as his LG as the two didnt really get along (they had been opponents in 74 Senate primary). Really strong tickets competing that year. Plus, highly contested open races for SOS & AG. My old friend Sen. Dick Renick was one of the contenders for SOS. Many competeive & open legislative races. Wish I had been older so I could have worked some of those campaigns!

    This is as good a places as any to acknowledge the recent passing of former Dade State Senator Lee Weissenborn. He was one of the giants in the legislature during its “Golden Age” of the late 60’s-early 70’s. He is also, at least partially, responsible for the construction of the new Capitol building. Dade’s Reapportionment class of 1963 (when the House delegation was expanded from 3 to 18 seats) is now down to three survivors: Dick Pettigrew, Murray Dubbin, and Tom Spencer.

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