Life held much promise for the man born Lawrence Hawkins.
Hawkins embodied the feel-good era of the Eisenhower years. A high school football star in Detroit, where he was born, and popular, Hawkins hoped to parlay his degrees in political science from Eastern Michigan University and law from Wayne State University into a successful business career.
In 1967, on the day he graduated from officer candidate school, 2nd Lt. Hawkins married his girlfriend. She soon was carrying their son, Richard. Hawkins wore the “I Like Ike” years well.
As the more familiar Larry Hawkins, he’d accomplish so much more than the simpler days of the 1950s promised, although he did so on the public stage, both as a Democratic Florida legislator and a Miami-Dade commissioner. He saw himself as an avatar of social reform. Others, even political foes and members of the opposing party — or both, as in the case of former State Rep. and U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen — saw him as such, too.
In 1978, when Hawkins ran his first political campaign for an open legislative seat in South Miami-Dade, his primary opponent was Lehtinen. Hawkins won.
Recently, the back and forth of politics long behind them, Lehtinen and his wife, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, were to visit Hawkins at his house in Deering Bay. But Hawkins was too frail to see the couple. He died Thursday at age 73.
“Dexter and I had the pleasure of serving with Larry in Tallahassee and he was a positive guy who always had time for his friends and constituents,” Ros-Lehtinen said Friday.
“Dexter had a special relationship with Larry because they were both Vietnam veterans injured in battle. Larry brought a positive energy to our community and we will certainly miss his radiance … He was a patriot and a wonderful South Floridian,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Complications from the injuries suffered in Vietnam would eventually lead to his death, said his sister Peggy Hawkins.
During the Tet Offensive of 1968, an enemy mortar round exploded behind Hawkins. The blast severed his spinal cord, leaving him a paraplegic and in a wheelchair for the next 48 years. “I felt my back open up” before losing consciousness, Hawkins, a decorated war vet, told the Miami New Times in 1994.
“He was a model citizen,” his sister said. “He was brave and overcame overwhelming odds and he was a wonderful father and grandfather and brother and son. He did so many wonderful things for so many people and everybody who worked with him considered him a friend.”
Hawkins was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1978 and served until 1986. His six years on the Metro-Dade Commission ended when then-newcomer Katy Sorenson defeated him in 1994. But the six years were enough for him to leave his mark.
He had a keen intellect and was masterful in terms of getting policies approved and passed through the county commission and he enjoyed the respect of his colleagues for his abilities.
Terry Murphy, Metro-Dade Commissioner Larry Hawkins’ former chief of staff.
In 1992, Hawkins sponsored an ordinance to allow Miami-Dade employees to temporarily leave their jobs for family reasons such as childbirth, illness and emergencies — the country’s first family-leave ordinance.
Hawkins was ebullient in an interview with the New York Times in March 1992. “We lead the nation in social-government interaction that is not intrusive,” he said, also citing Miami-Dade’s clean-air act and its recycling program. “From children to garbage we’re as progressive as any local government.”
That August, after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade, he used his Washington connections to make the redevelopment of Homestead Air Force Base a priority of the Clinton administration. Hawkins called on those same friendships to help Miami be named as host to the Summit of the Americas in 1994.
Hawkins was also instrumental in securing $20 million to build a Grand Prix racetrack in Homestead. He authored a plan to combat juvenile crime in 1993 by proposing a two-year increase in property taxes to finance a comprehensive program to include more jails, programs to steer children away from crime, and the development of one-on-one interactions between police teams and neighboring families. Voters rejected the plan.
“It’s time to put our money where our mouth is. There will be no tourism, there will be no economic development unless we act now to gain control of our streets,” Hawkins told the Herald in 1993. He fought for causes he championed — like access rights for the disabled, urging the implementation of affordable generic drugs, and recognition for service men and women.
During the 1983 legislative session, Hawkins sponsored and helped pass a bill that created a Vietnam veterans academic chair for the study of world peace and national security, later designated for the University of Florida. The Florida chair was a rarity at the time as it dealt specifically with Vietnam.
“The chair is a living memorial for those who served in Vietnam or during that time,” Hawkins told the Herald at the time. “It should explain to students … a little about what has transpired in the wars, but it’s mostly to teach about peace. It’s really about how we can live together and avoid wars.”
To President Bill Clinton, Hawkins was “Larry” — first-name basis colleagues. When Clinton hit Bal Harbour for a national Democratic Party fundraiser during his first term, Hawkins sat by his side throughout the evening. “No other local politician could claim such entree inside the Washington beltway,” a Miami Herald political editor wrote in 1994, the year his political career collapsed.
Three women who worked for Hawkins from 1988 to 1994 accused him of sexual harassment. The state Commission on Ethics unanimously approved a fine of $5,000 for the offenses when he was county commissioner. Hawkins, who denied saying anything inappropriate, lost his bid for re-election to Sorenson. She capitalized on questions of Hawkins’ character during her campaign.
Two years later, in 1996, Hawkins resigned from his position as president of Easter Seals of Dade County amid new allegations that he sexually harassed female employees. In 2013, Hawkins, nearing 70, withdrew his name from nomination to the Jackson Health System board.
“After considering the time commitment and the physical demands associated with fulfilling the responsibilities of the position, I have decided to decline the opportunity to serve,” he said in a letter to the clerk of courts.
“He was an extremely capable legislator,” said Hawkins’ former chief of staff Terry Murphy, now aide to county Commissioner Jean Monestime. “He had a keen intellect and was masterful in terms of getting policies approved and passed through the County Commission and he enjoyed the respect of his colleagues for his abilities. He was an advocate for veterans in Tallahassee and a close political ally of Sen. Tom Harkin from Iowa who introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act” into the Senate. “Larry was an exceptional guy.”
Hawkins is also survived by his grandchildren Samantha Kelly Hawkins Auricchio and Alexander Hawkins, stepson Patrick Varone and sister Mary Hawkins Davis. He was predeceased by his son, Richard. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.