Reuben Askew Remembered


Once upon a time Florida was a state with one big theme park. The roads and beaches weren’t stacked sardine tight, the inland waterways weren’t brackish with yard fertilizers and bullets weren’t flying when you went to see “Woodstock” down at the Bijou.

These days Florida is one big theme park within a state. Population increases by an alarming 3 million each year, green slime fouls outboard engines and with Stand Your Ground as the law of the jungle, a body can’t say for sure “Dallas Buyers Club” won’t be the last flick he’ll ever see. This did not happen with one fell session or term. Florida started jumping the shark decades ago – the result of a nearly unbroken string of state legislators and executives who governed under a business-at-all-costs guiding principle.

Disembodied corporations were wooed with every legal (and on occasion illegal) incentive available. Tourist-related industries were likewise courted without concern for consequence, placing shorelines, rivers and wetlands at risk. And developers smiled all the way to and from the bank as local officials competed for revenue streams and the promise of new jobs. But while short of a golden era, thanks to a “New South” Democrat named Reuben Askew, the Sunshine State did witness an eight-year stretch of relative sanity.

Askew was barely on his own party’s radar when in 1956 he was elected to the Florida state legislature. His Panhandle district had for years gone Republican; but Askew’s populist agenda caught on with rank-and-file workers of both parties as he lobbied for increasing taxes on large corporations paying low wages and offering scant benefits. Askew parlayed his rising profile, serving two terms in the Florida House and two more in the state Senate before reclaiming the governorship for Democrats in 1970. The newly elected governor wasted no time in advancing his progressive agenda, starting by boosting corporate taxes to 5%.

A non-drinking, non-smoking Presbyterian, Askew insisted on high ethical standards and transparency for state officials and agencies. When legislators refused to impose tougher ethics on themselves, he forced a public referendum that resulted in a resounding victory.

By the time he’d completed his second term in 1979, Askew’s administration had pushed through both houses legislation lowering property and sales taxes, increasing funding for public assistance, enacting tougher environmental regulations and further dismantling the segregation plaguing Florida since Reconstruction.

But Askew flummoxed the most liberal wing of his party with his consistent stances against most abortions and equal rights for gay persons. He further raised the ire of Florida’s progressives when toward the end of his tenure he made a partial pivot on corporate tax rebates and foreign investments. (Although he gave no direct explanations, the reversals were likely an attempt to appear more business-friendly should he pursue higher office.) After leaving the governor’s mansion Askew continued civil service, chairing both regional and national Democratic governors’ conferences and taking a post as trade representative under Jimmy Carter.

In 1972 he was vetted to join the Democratic presidential ticket as George McGovern’s pick for Vice President, but after consideration declined. Askew made an ill-fated presidential run in 1983, but garnered little attention and dropped out. He encountered similar electorate ambivalence during a US Senate run five years later. Askew spent the rest of his working life teaching political science at various universities in Florida, emphasizing many of the themes from his days in Tallahassee. Reuben Askew died last month. He was 85.

Florida has since produced Democratic governors with talent, even vision: Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles admirably served state and party for eight years each. (Recall that former governor Charlie Crist left the GOP while in office but claimed Independent status. He is now running for governor as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott.)

Yet none have displayed the sense of self, timing and will of the masses as Askew. Blind spots and hints of political expediency not withstanding, his passing should remind Floridians of a bygone era when leadership wasn’t measured in curried favors and success wasn’t determined by the latest polls.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2014

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2014 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652