This week’s Florida History Podcast is on Dan McCarty’s political career- a transformative figure in Florida Politics, McCarty was the first resident of South Florida ever elected Governor. He was also what we would consider the first “National Democrat” post-FDR to be elected statewide in Florida. He died just months into his term.
Robert Buccellato’s Finding Dan McCarty is the most definitive book written about his political career.
Dan McCarty started campaigning for governor in 1947 and never stopped. Following his loss to Warren in 1948, he simply refused to stop making speeches.
Having been a runner-up to the current governor and actually enhancing his support, unlike the declining political fortunes of Fuller Warren, he was in a great position to be seen as something of a shadow governor; turning up at countless gatherings, events, and touring across the state. He made new signs based on the old 48 slogans “Lets Double down our drive for Dan!” and “Words won’t win, vote Dan in!”.
Ties and buttons were made with the slogan that would become the most remembered “Dan’s our Man!”. With the Florida Handbook Second Edition at his desk and Earl Powers of Gainesville by his side, he began to make an allegiances with nearly every member of the Florida legislature. Coleman Studio, based in Fort Pierce, was commissioned to do countless campaign photos, and at the campaign headquarters, a giant wood panel was attached to the wall with plated name cards representing every district of the state. Below the name cards was pinned information on all the various cities and representatives the campaign had on their side.
Then nearly an entire year before the summer primary, McCarty issued a statement declaring his candidacy which was released late on October 24, 1951.
The 39-year-old McCarty pledged to fight for the people against the interests of the political powers. “I am in the People’s corner and I am ready for the opening bell.” McCarty then went on to state that he would make known “in due time” his principles for a “clean, efficient, and progressive government” that he would be advocating during the upcoming election year. He acknowledged that it was the custom of candidates to wait later and closer to the election cycle before beginning a campaign. But he also knew that, in his heart, he was ready to run again for the only office he had ever been denied. He also didn’t want his supporters to be unable to support him fully, waiting for him to officially announce once everyone close to him knew that he was running nonstop.
He also decided to announce early due to the presence of new laws that made financial filing deadlines for the race more detailed and vastly more complicated. “Further and even more important, I have been shocked by the recent reports of deals and combinations and manipulations and conspiracies involving the governorship”. In fact despite the severe tone of McCarty statement in regards to the current governor’s administration that may now seem slightly dramatic, there was much truth to his words. The professional politicians of the day shared a singular motto “Beat Dan McCarty”.
Since the war, McCarty was becoming more and more the pragmatic populist of Florida’s working classes. Democratic Party kingmakers simply just didn’t seem able to control him, and were not likely to favor him. The door to his Capitol office as speaker was famously closed to all of them. “They have only one basic game… to take and control the governorship which belongs to the people and which should be exercised for their benefit.” From McCarty’s viewpoint, the time to land the knockout punch in the campaign was now. Despite being the two front runners of the race, McCarty and chief challenger, J. Bradley Odham, were not really anything other than respectful and professional to one another, at least at first. The two additional and in many cases, minor contenders in the race, Bob Venn and Matt Matthews, would provide the race with the usual dose of petty rivalry that many come to expect in typical campaigns. Both trying in vain to knock the other out of the race, gain some degree of momentum and hopefully compete against McCarty in the runoff.
Odham was already acting like the party’s nominee, while McCarty was behaving like the governor elect. In fact, during their televised debate with one another for channel WTVJ, they only attacked one individual, current Governor, Fuller Warren. Both repudiated the Governor with declarations that the current administration was corrupt, that they had zero confidence in his handling of government, and both questioned his manner of approving state contracts.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, McCarty and Odham were guaranteeing themselves an awkward open car ride to their potential inauguration with Warren the following January. Arriving at the Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach to speak before the Florida Association of Broadcasters, Warren was asked to comment on the “zero confidence” the two candidates gave his administration.
For perhaps the only time in his political career, the governor waved away the press with a smile and avoided the matter entirely. One of McCarty’s greatest assets this time around was the weak governorship of Fuller Warren,of all the governors since the chaotic and turbulent Catts years, none but Fuller, seemed to match the latter’s negative dealings with the legislature. The failure to pass a majority of his proposals in his first session, his disastrous second session, and the ever present charges of corrupt patronage, made him wildly unpopular. “It was an exciting time in Fort Pierce during that election and after.
Dan would be seen around downtown usually in blue jeans, just a regular guy but oh so very special” said Bruce Centers, in a 2013 interview. Centers is one of the last to remember those glory days, he was a young man when the 1952 campaign took place, his father, Harry Centers, Mayor of Fort Pierce, was one of McCarty’s best friends and would later serve as one of the six men selected to carry his flag draped casket. The most vivid memory Bruce Centers has of that time was a lengthy meeting McCarty had with his mother, as the primary season was just starting to gear up. Alto Adams was a prominent attorney and rancher before going to the Supreme Court, and like McCarty, a native of the area. “In the event of a probable runoff he felt it important to carry his home county.
My father, a drug store owner (Harry Center), three term county commissioner and former Ft Pierce mayor was a very popular man and close personal friend of Dan’s. Dan wanted him to act as his Saint Louise County campaign Manager. Dad was fine with this but my mother, being a close friend of Cara Adams wanted him to stay out of it. One day around February of 1952, Dan sat down in my mother’s office at the drug store and said he was not leaving until she said okay.
He meant it as he sat there and argued with her for over two hours until she finally agreed. I personally witnessed this.” The conversation consisted of McCarty chain smoking, blocking her from leaving, and saying over and over again that this race was important and that he needed to get sixty percent of the vote in the primary to stop Adams from getting into the runoff. At the time, it was unthinkable that Brailey Odham would make it to the runoff; “Adams was the favorite at that moment, and he finally got my mom to agree to help with the campaign” Centers said later. “There was a lot of hard feelings between the two cattle families” according to Jean Allen Wilson, a local Historian “a lot of pressure for people on who to vote for”. In the home stretch of the sometimes subdued, and often crowded Democratic primary of 1952, all parties had a single target, the projected winner, Dan McCarty. Both Alto Adams and Brailey Odham leveled charges against the front runner. Some could be seen as false, others a bit odd, and many just silly. For all of them had agendas and views similar, if not almost identical, to Daniel McCarty. But what seemed to irritate them the most was the fact that McCarty had no soft underbelly of integrity, he was just a descent and earnest individual whose time had come. In a statewide radio address, McCarty mocked these “stunt candidates” for their comments. “I asked the people to check records and backgrounds of each of us running for governor. I have submitted my record. I don’t think you’ll find I’ve done any heel dragging; or that I have ever joined with evil forces; or that I have run from any fight for truth and high idealism in government”. When the Election Day finally came, Daniel McCarty won an impressive victory. While slightly short of reaching the 50.1 percent needed to prevent a runoff. His 48.94 percent total was nearly 18 points greater than Odham’s 31.4 percent. As it turned out, Adams was never a factor, McCarty won his home district with 67 percent of the vote. Adams would place third in the race, but it was with the tragic total of only 17 percent. Lake City and Hillsbrough went solidly for Odham, while Springhill, Palm Harbor, and Orlando were up for grabs.
Sanford came out in similar numbers as Fort Pierce did for McCarty, allowing Odham to savor a huge victory in his hometown. Apart from those various pockets of Central and Western Florida, the rest of the state was carried by McCarty. The runoff went by with lightning speed. The writing was on the wall. Dan was going to be the next governor. Odham, in earnest, offered McCarty an invitation to do a series of radio broadcasts together. McCarty declined, saying “there is no reason why I should put new life in your medical show”.
For more on Governors the Book Florida Governors Lasting Legacies by Robert Buccellato is highly recommended.