Times change. Reubin Askew doesn’t.
The oldest living former Florida governor views government as a force for good, not evil, rates personal integrity as a cornerstone of public service and encourages young people to get involved in politics.
Askew still teaches public-administration courses to students at Florida State University, though this will be his final year in the classroom. Tall and white-haired, with a black cane in hand, he will turn 85 in a few weeks and recently became a great-grandfather.
But he loves sharing his experiences, especially with students.
He was honored with loud sustained ovations Monday by graduate students in FSU’s Applied American Politics and Policy program in a ceremony held in the Senate chamber in the historic Old Capitol.
It was in that room where Askew, as a young senator in the late 1960s, helped force rural “pork chop” senators to redistribute political power based on the principle of one man one vote, even though “Rube” himself came from prime pork chop territory: Pensacola.
“I don’t think they ever forgave me,” Askew said.
Askew is considered one of Florida’s greatest governors. The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University rated him one of the 10 best in the United States in the 20th century.
He was elected in 1970 on a risky populist platform that included taxing profits of corporations the way neighboring Georgia did. (Gov. Rick Scott wants to phase out the corporate profits tax.)
He stressed racial diversity and peaceful desegregation of schools, modernized an antiquated judiciary and in 1978, during his last year in office, stopped casino gambling.
When a recalcitrant Legislature refused to pass ethics reform after a series of scandals, he took his case straight to the people and voters wrote the “Sunshine Amendment” into the Constitution, with financial disclosure requirements and limits on post-employment lobbying by elected officials.
At first blush, Askew, a Democrat, and Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, would seem to have little in common but for their common Panhandle links.
But building on what Askew began, Gaetz took Sunshine a step further this past session by championing stronger ethics laws, including online posting of legislators’ financial records.
Gaetz, who was at Monday’s ceremony, joked about a“rumor” that Askew was plotting a political comeback.
“We have a plan for Alex Sink, Charlie Crist, Nan Rich and Bill Nelson,” Gaetz said. “But we wouldn’t stand a chance if Reubin Askew ran for governor again. So, please, sir, don’t get any ideas.”
Askew’s days of holding public office are long past, but his legacy is secure as one of his state’s best leaders. Instead, he urges young people to get involved.
In his talk to the FSU students, Askew marveled at President Jimmy Carter’s ability to hold a smile endlessly.
“One of the biggest problems I had when I first started going to the Strawberry Festival in Plant City was to be able to be able to smile for 5 miles without blinking,” Askew said, “in total sincerity.”
Steve Bousquet is the Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau chief.