Reviewing the life and accomplishments of former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, who died early Thursday at 85, the most enduring thought that comes to mind is that they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
His death provokes mourning for the passing of a man whose devotion to the cause of good government did so much to improve Florida and the lives of its residents. It also arouses nostalgia for an era when leaders prized a reputation for integrity and worked hard to uphold it.
Mr. Askew was born in a hard-scrabble town whose very name evokes the American heartland — Muskogee, Okla. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Pensacola and was raised there amid a political environment steeped in the ways of the Old South and a belief in rural control of the Legislature.
That did not stop him, after he was elected to the Florida Senate in 1962, from helping force the pork-chop senators to surrender political power under the principle of one man, one vote. Nor did his roots in a conservative region of the state keep him from championing progressive causes designed to push Florida into the modern era.
He was a new kind of Southern politician, battling not only to increase representation for urban areas like Dade County, but, more courageously, upholding the principle of equality and pushing for desegregation.
When he ran against Gov. Claude Kirk in 1970, the acerbic incumbent called him, among other things, “a momma’s boy,” “a nice, sweet-looking fellow,” and — horrors! — a liberal. Mr. Askew’s victory by a margin of 57-43 showed that Floridians were eager for new leadership.
Mr. Askew served two four-year terms as governor, a remarkable and productive eight-year period in the 1970s that created laws that changed Florida forever and gave Floridians a reason to have faith in government.
His signal achievement was turning Florida into the Sunshine State, etching transparency into the state’s legal code and Constitution over the opposition of many in his own Democratic Party. In the end, he was forced to turn to the voters to win approval for the “Sunshine Amendment” — it carried by 78 percent of the vote — forcing financial disclosure by public officials.
He gained passage of the state’s first corporate income tax, modernized the judiciary and, in his last year, 1978, stopped a push for casino gambling. He also named the first black Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (Joseph Woodrow Hatchett) and appointed Miami’s Athalie Range secretary of the Department of Community Affairs.
Throughout it all, he maintained an unequaled and enviable reputation for personal integrity that allowed him to avoid a number of government scandals that tarnished others in Tallahassee.
It is hard to avoid the stark contrast between Mr. Askew and our own time.
As noted, he introduced the state corporate income tax; Gov. Rick Scott wants to abolish it.
He supported transparency in every realm of government; Mr. Scott flies around the country and won’t reveal where he’s been or whom with.
Mr. Askew fought against disenfranchisement of black voters, despite the angry voices that wanted to turn the clock back. Today, Florida voters in black precincts face a series of obstacles, from reduced early voting days to fewer voting sites and shortened hours.
They don’t make ’em like Reubin Askew any longer. More’s the pity for us.