Reubin Askew, former Florida governor, dies at 85


Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, left, and Florida Gov. Reubin Askew at the National Governors' Conference in 1972. (AP)

Reubin Askew, who was a transformative political figure as Florida’s two-term governor in the 1970s, instituting landmark reforms in desegregation, government accountability and environmental protection, died March 13 in Tallahassee. He was 85.

He had pneumonia and complications from recent hip-replacement surgery. The death was confirmed by a spokesman, Jon Peck.

Mr. Askew was elected governor in 1970, the same year as other progressive Democrats of the “New South,” including Jimmy Carter in Georgia and Dale Bumpers in Arkansas.

Defying political custom, party loyalties and entrenched business interests, Mr. Askew launched a series of reforms designed to make state government more open and to increase opportunities for the poor and disenfranchised.

A supporter of racial equality since the 1950s, Mr. Askew integrated the state highway patrol and other state agencies after he was elected governor. He supported busing to end school desegregation, despite overwhelming opposition.

He expanded consumer and environmental protection measures, eased individual property taxes and introduced the state’s first corporate income tax — which Mr. Askew always called a “corporate profits” tax.

He faced a furious backlash from business owners, but the public sided with the governor after he went on television with a dramatic demonstration of political populism. He held up two shirts purchased at Sears — one from a store in Georgia, the other from a store in Florida.

The shirts were the same price, but Mr. Askew pointed out that Georgia collected hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in taxes from Sears, whereas Florida received only $2,000 a year in business license fees.

“He really made history,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist who once shared her office at the University of South Florida with Mr. Askew. “He was truly a progressive in every positive sense of the word. He was key in transitioning the state from the Old South to its new identity.”

Although Florida was one of the fastest-growing states in the union, its government in the 1960s and early 1970s was still dominated by a conservative cabal from the northern part of the state called the Pork Chop Gang. In 1972, Florida’s Democratic presidential primary was won by George Wallace, the onetime segregationist from neighboring Alabama.

Mr. Askew, who hailed from the same region as the Pork Chop Gang, set out to overturn a system in which more than half of the state’s lawmakers were elected by only 15 percent of the population. He also banned liquor from the governor’s mansion, serving nothing stronger than orange juice to visitors.

He helped push through legislative reapportionment that increased representation in the growing population centers of southern and central Florida.

Armed with widespread public support after a landslide reelection victory in 1974, Mr. Askew called for ethical reforms, including the disclosure of financial holdings by public officials and a two-year wait before ex-lawmakers could become lobbyists.

When the legislature rejected the proposals, Mr. Askew appealed directly to the public. In 1976, Florida voters passed the “Sunshine Amendment,” a sweeping constitutional measure that was one of the nation’s first efforts to make state government more transparent and accountable.

During his second term, Mr. Askew appointed the first African American justice to the state supreme court, the first African American to lead a state agency and the first African American cabinet official since Reconstruction.

By the end of his eight years in office, Mr. Askew had won over many of his opponents, including Dempsey Barron, a longtime nemesis in the state legislature.

“He has exhibited a kind of morality in office,” Barron said in 1978, “that causes people to have faith in the governor’s office to a higher degree than we have seen in a long, long time.”

Reubin O’Donovan Askew was born Sept. 11, 1928, in Muskogee, Okla. After his parents divorced, he moved with mother and five siblings to Pensacola, Fla. As a boy, Mr. Askew shined shoes and sold his mother’s homemade pies door to door.

He was an Army paratrooper in the late 1940s, then attended Florida State University on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1951. He was elected student body president.

After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, he graduated from law school at the University of Florida in 1956. He later served in the state house and state senate.

Mr. Askew held cabinet rank as U.S. Trade Representative during the Carter administration from 1979 to 1981. Three years later, he mounted a short-lived campaign for the presidency, dropping out after he finished last in the New Hampshire primary.

In 1988, he abandoned a bid for the U.S. Senate because the need for constant fundraising made him feel like a “professional beggar.” In his later years, he taught at Florida universities, some of which named buildings or schools in his honor.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Donna Lou Harper, of Tallahassee; two children, Kevin Askew of Tallahassee and Angela White of Lakeland, Fla.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Askew did not drink, smoke or swear, which led his 1970 gubernatorial opponent, Claude R. Kirk Jr., to pronounce him a “mama’s boy.”

”I love my mama,” Mr. Askew soberly replied.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.

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