Former FL Gov. Askew passes away at 85

1:04 PM, Mar 13, 2014   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +
Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew was honored on Monday at the Old Capitol. The event was put on by students in FSU's Master's of Applied American Politics and Policy, MAAPP, commemorating his final year of teaching at FSU. The event was held in the Senate Chamber at the Old Capitol / Glenn Beil/Democrat

 


 


(Tallahassee.com) - Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew died early this morning at the age of 85 surrounded by family at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.

Reubin Askew was a pivotal figure in Florida politics.

He championed racial reconciliation as a state legislator in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when other southern politicians were preaching "massive resistance" to the U.S. Supreme Court and promising to preserve segregation. He made a corporate income tax the centerpiece of his race for governor, turning his back on big business money that could have greased his campaign.

He supported fair apportionment of the Legislature, even though it meant his rural Pensacola-area district would lose power to big cities. At a time of post-Watergate corruption scandals at the state level, Askew sponsored the first successful public petition initiative and won passage of the 1978 "Sunshine Amendment" that forced financial disclosure by public officeholders.

And, in an unheard-of move, he actually gave up some of his power as governor -- creating the Judicial Nominating Commissions that send governors lists of qualified candidates for judgeships, rather than having them pass out the patronage to fund-raisers and politically connected attorneys.

He did things that hurt him politically, and won anyway. In 1972, when then-Gov. George Wallace of Alabama was riding the school-busing issue to leadership in Florida's first presidential primary, Republicans and conservative Democrats proposed a busing "straw ballot" question and a school-prayer issue before the voters. Askew, a personally religious man, opposed restoration of prayer to public schools and countered the busing issue with a question of his own -- asking voters if they favored lawful integration of the schools.

Floridians voted yes on all three.

Similarly, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment nationwide in 1972, other southern governors sent up a cry for its immediate restoration. Askew, an attorney and former prosecutor, resisted calls for a special legislative session and consulted advocates and opponents, including ex-Gov. LeRoy Collins, before agreeing to support a limited restoration that he intended to apply only in the most heinous killings.

Born in Muskogee, Okla., Askew moved to Pensacola as a child. He was an Army paratrooper 1946-48, attaining the rank of sergeant, then attended Florida State University graduating as student body president in 1951. He joined the Air Force in 1951-53 and served as an intelligence officer, then earned his law degree at the University of Florida. He and his wife, Donna Lou Harper, were married in 1956 and had a son and daughter, Kevin and Angela Askew.

After two years an assistant solicitor, as prosecutors in Pensacola were known then, Askew was elected to the Florida House in 1958. He moved to the Senate in 1962 and became president pro tempore in the 1969-70 term, running for governor against then-Senate President Jack Mathews of Jacksonville.

Askew finished second, in a runoff with Attorney General Earl Faircloth, then overtook Faircloth in the runoff. He beat the late Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr., the first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction, by nearly a quarter-million votes in the general election.

His ascension was aided by Tom Adams, the secretary of state, which was then a statewide elected office. Adams gave the little-known Panhandle senator credibility with the "courthouse gang" in many small counties. But they had a falling out when Adams used a couple of Commerce Department employees for personal chores at his Gadsden County farm, and the Legislature almost impeached him. Askew announced he would not keep Adams on the 1974 ticket but worked behind the scenes to spare the lieutenant governor impeachment.

Adams then ran against him in the Democratic primary -- a four-way affair that Askew won, this time without a runoff.

He was among the first of the "New South" governors, racial moderates who forcused on economic development, education and civil rights. Govs. Jimmy Carter in Georgia, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas and John West in South Carolina were among that 1970 class of chief executives who changed the South's political direction.

In his first term, Askew won passage of the corporate income tax -- which he adroitly referred to as the "corporate profits tax" -- despite stiff resistance by big business lobbyists statewide. To counteract claims that merchants would simply pass the tax on to consumers, Askew purchased two t-shirts at Sears in Thomasville, Ga., and Tallahassee and showed them at public appearances, saying the shirts cost the same but that Sears paid Georgia millions in corporate taxes while adding nothing to Florida's treasury.

As governor, Askew appointed the state's first black Supreme Court justice, Joseph Hatchett, who later became a federal judge. He also appointed the first black department head of modern times, Secretary of Community Affairs Athalie Range of Miami, and named Jesse McCrary secretary of state, when Bruce Smathers resigned to run for governor in 1978.

That year, Askew successfully campaigned against casino gambling, which was on the ballot through a petition initiative.

He was keynote speaker at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach and could have had the vice-presidential nomination. Askew said at the time he did not want to expose his young children to the glare of national publicity, but it was widely known that he was more conservative than the George McGovern campaign that year.

While the nation was following Watergate, Florida had a wide array of separate scandals, eventually involving three Cabinet officers, three Supreme Court justices and a U.S. senator, as well as Askew's lieutenant governor. Three times, the Legislature refused to enact financial disclosure requirements, so Askew turned to the public with his "Sunshine Amendment", which passed easily in 1976.

Askew joined a Miami law firm after leaving office but returned to public life as President Carter's foreign trade envoy 1979-80. He briefly ran for president in 1984, finishing last in the New Hampshire primary, and tried again in 1987 when then-Sen. Lawton Chiles announced he would not seek a fourth term in Washington. Tired of the constant need to raise money, Askew dropped out of the 1988 Senate race, which was won by former Sen. Connie Mack, a Republican.

FSU's Reubin O'D. Askew School of Public Administration is named for him. After leaving politics, Askew lectured at several universities throughout the state.

Gov. Rick Scott released the following statement on Askew's passing Thursday:

"Governor Askew served our nation as a veteran, he served Florida's families as an elected officeholder, and he served our children as an educator.  He helped lead Florida to enormous growth and was a trailblazer for good government. His advocacy for Florida's sunshine laws was a landmark moment for ethics and transparency in government, and that legacy continues to endure.

"His accomplishments were vast, but he remained humble and took his commitment to public service seriously. Governor Askew strove to make life better for all of Florida's families, and that dedication is an example for all who followed in his footsteps. Ann and I mourn his passing and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Donna Lou, and his entire family."

Most Watched Videos