Impeachment and Florida

As another impeachment inquiry concludes and we head for a Senate trial, The Florida History Podcast looks back at Florida’s role in previous impeachment proceedings, and the pivotal role the state played in the Watergate scandal. 

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Some notes on each impeachment and Florida links are below:

Andrew Johnson (1868)

Florida had not been readmitted to the union when Democratic President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the Republican Congress. Florida had tried to send several ex-Confederates to Congress after the Civil War but they were not seated. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee had taken a lenient view of Reconstruction and clemency for ex-Confederates while most Republicans, particularly the radical faction that controlled the House wanted to ensure the Civil Rights and voting rights (for men) of the newly freed African-Americans were protected.

Richard Nixon (1973-74)

Richard Nixon’s ties to the state of Florida played a huge role in the Watergate scandal. Southern Florida played a major role in the conception of the Watergate break-in with the burglars being recruited in Miami and money being deposited in accounts both in Miami and Boca Raton. During the scandal Nixon as always spent much of his time outside official business on Key Biscayne.

Florida Senator Ed Gurney, the first Republican to serve the state in the US Senate since the Reconstruction era emerged as one of Nixon’s most dogmatic defenders. Gurney had been elected as a staunch-conservative opponent of Civil Rights and LBJ’s Great Society programs. His one term in office produced the most conservative voting record for a Florida Senator according to major interest groups until Marco Rubio surpassed it in recent years.

Gurney worked with Governor Claude Kirk to oppose fellow Republican William Cramer’s candidacy in 1970 for US Senate creating an irrevocable split within Florida’s minority party. Gurney was rewarded by seeing his law firm awarded a massive contract with the Florida Turnpike Authority.

The performance of Gurney on the Select Committee headed by Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina) in 1973 and early 1974, was so notable that he became a favorite of the President, but also became a very easy target.

As the committee work wound down, Gurney was indicted in 1974 for influence peddling just months after he had been Richard Nixon’s only staunch defender on the Senate Watergate Committee – while the other Republicans on the Ervin panel had tried to be objective and eventually tilted against the President Gurney was as noted above Nixon’s leading man in the Senate. Gurney did not seek reelection and was eventually acquitted on all charges.

Nixon resigned the office in August 1974 as impeachment and removal from office appeared inevitable.

Bill Clinton (1998-99)

Florida played a central role in the impeachment of President Clinton.  The nation nor our state have yet to heal from the wounds opened by the hunting of the President by conservative forces and elements of the media. Of course those elements were aided by President Clinton’s own reckless behavior. 

But this is not intended to be a re-litigation of impeachment with the perspective of the twenty years of history that have seen our nation divided and our state under GOP rule stare at the abyss. This is meant to simple recount the role of Florida in the impeachment proceedings. 

Lewinsky and Sugar- Alfy Fanjul

When the House of Representatives released Kenneth Starr’s Independent Counsel (often forgotten without the support of Starr himself who felt the public release of the documents undermined the claim his case was not political…but c’mon of course it was political!) the most salacious piece for Florida politicos was that Clinton phoned Alfy Fanjul while engaged with Lewinsky in an alleged sexual act. Fanjul at the time was an uber-Democratic donor (this was long before Marco Rubio publicly thanked him for his support in his autobiography, but the Fanjul’s continue to play both sides politically) and was one of the few people with a direct line to the President.  Fanjul spent 22 minutes on the phone with the President. 

When the report was released here in Florida much of the talk was about Fanjul. Nat Reed, the influential Republican environmentalist who spent years doing battle with the sugar industry told the Sun Sentinel this in 1998:

“That’s quite a bit of time for a president to spend talking to one of the sugar barons.” “It’s everything that we were talking about during the debate on campaign finance reform. If there was ever an example of why money should be restricted . . . this is it.”

Nat Reed to the Sun Sentinel, September 15, 1998 

The release of the report came weeks after Clinton had done a very public event in Miami with Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Buddy MacKay. 1998 proved to be a pretty good year for Democrats in nearby southern states but a disaster in Florida. How impeachment related to that is still a mystery all these years later. 

Bill McCollum 

For some reason the image of Bill McCollum changed when Mel Martinez attacked him for supporting hate crimes legislation after the death of Matthew Sheppard. It was an act of political cowardice and disgrace by Martinez who rode that attack into the US Senate. McColllum was accordingly re-positioned as a more mainstream Republican who got elected Attorney General and was the establishment choice for Governor in 2010. 

But McCollum was never anything like a mainstream Republican. He was the NRA’s water carrier for years. When they needed someone to fight Bill Clinton Assault Weapons Ban, it was McCollum who led the fight both in committee and on the floor. When they needed someone to push the building of more prisons and less restrictions on firearms, they once again tapped McCollum. 

Tickets for the Senate trial 

So it was no surprise when besides the incredibly whiny and dogmatic Lindsey Graham, McCollum became the most annoying impeachment proponent in the House and manager in the Senate trial.  McCollum’s conduct in the impeachment saga was a key reason he was “owed” by the GOP he cleared a primary for US Senate in 2000 (of potentially stronger candidates like Tom Gallagher) so he could be the nominee. And it is the reason he lost to Bill Nelson by five points. 

Charles Canady

Florida’s ultra-conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady was once upon a time a Congressman.  Before that he was a State Representative and a Democrat! 

Canady being from Polk County was connected to Lawton Chiles. When Chiles was a US Senator, Canady’s dad was one his closest campaign confidantes. Canady switched parties in 1989, a move that must have been out of conviction given he was going from the majority to the minority party in the legislature. 

In 1992 Canady was elected to Congress defeating Tom Mims whom he had served with in the State House. In Washington, Canady was a fairly conventional conservative though he did have some interesting votes (like for Clinton’s Crime Bill, which McCollum led the opposition to) . He was borderline obsessive about any aspect of the discussion of reproductive rights and became a driving force in trying to ban third trimester abortions. 

By 1998, he had advanced into the good graces of the leadership and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde to be one of the more prominent impeachment managers. His greatest contribution to the whole discourse however, may have been his attempts to get Carolee Westcott a waitress at the Olive Garden fired. 

Westcott had not been waiting on Canady when the incident took place – she was waiting on a neighboring table. But she said something that elicited his ire and then he said to her if she had some issue with him say it to his face – Wescott replied that Canady should not have stabbed President Clinton in the back and was disloyal for switching parties. Canady then complained to the Olive Garden’s Orlando division corporate office. Subsequently Canady had claimed he did not try to get Wescott the sack but had just “complained” about her. 

On the positive side, Canady was a rare public official who made a term limits pledge and kept it (unlike Bill McCollum ironically enough). In 1992 he said he would only serve four terms and he kept his word opening the door for 26 year-old State Representative Adam Putnam to take his seat in 2000.

Florida’s history with previous impeachment proceedings has been critical. As the Donald Trump inquiry ramps up, expect the Sunshine State to again play a major role.


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