Dante Fascell: They don’t make ’em like they used to

On Monday I found myself thinking back to the Labor Day picnics thrown for years by the late Dante Fascell, the “short, pie-faced Miami congressman,” as a writer for this newspaper once described him. After which he often used that phrase to describe himself. Pretentious Dante was not. Honest he was, as well as an outstanding public servant.

His picnics, at Tropical Park, were red-white-and-blue family affairs featuring free hot dogs, burgers and soft drinks for all comers, much of it served up by the congressman himself. After lunch there would be an unabashedly patriotic parade led by a military or police color guard, followed by the congressman, usually holding a grandchild’s hand, and a high school marching band playing Stars and Stripes Forever. It may have been a bit corny, but it was genuine, authentic Americana. Like Dante.

What I remember most vividly from the many picnics I covered was an encounter between Dante and a constituent. A prosperous-looking businessman, he had brought with him another well-dressed man and introduced him to Dante with the clear implication that a big check would be forthcoming if Dante could help out (Dante was facing a tough opponent that year).

The newcomer, let’s call him Bill, immediately launched into a bombastic attack on OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Seems OSHA inspectors were giving Bill a hard time over unsafe working conditions at his manufacturing facility. The conversation went something like this:

Bill: “Congressman, these damn, nosy bureaucrats have got it in for small businessmen like me. They’re demanding all kinds of expensive changes at my plant just because a couple of guys got hurt on the job. Nothing really serious, but the OSHA inspector wrote me up, and it’s going to cost me. Think you could call up somebody at OSHA in Washington and get them to back off? I’d appreciate it and would be happy to help you out in your campaign.”

Dante: “Gee, Bill, I’d love to have your support, but it sounds to me like OSHA is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. If you’ve got some safety issues at your plant and your workers are getting hurt, then you really need to fix it. OSHA might seem like a pain in the butt to you, but we need them to make sure workers in this country work in safe and healthy places.”

The message was crystal clear: Keep your check, fix your plant and I’m not about to call OSHA and tell them to back off. After Bill and his friend left, Dante turned to me and said something like, “Can you believe what that guy was asking me to do? Some gall, huh? And just for a campaign contribution!”

I’ve never forgotten that incident because it stands as a shining example of how an elected official couldn’t be bought. True, we’re not talking about a lot of money — maybe a check for $250 — but it could have been $25,000 and wouldn’t have made any difference to Dante Fascell. He couldn’t be bought. His constituents knew it and sent him to Congress for 38 years. It was a privilege to know Congressman Fascell and to call him my friend.

Is there anyone in elected office these days that you feel that way about?

I hope so, but somehow doubt it. And there’s nothing about the governor’s race so far that makes me think there will be. Gov. Scott has raked in $534,000 for his campaign from U.S. Sugar, which invited him to go hunting at the King Ranch in Texas.

A month later, Scott appointed the King Ranch’s top executive in Florida, where they own extensive sugar and citrus interests, to the South Florida Water Management District.

But Big Sugar isn’t the only industry helping Scott. The state’s three big utility companies have chipped in, collectively, over $3 million to his campaign. Let’s see who Scott soon appoints to the Public Service Commission. Bet it won’t be someone who’s tough on the electric companies.

Democrat Charlie Crist has collected $21 million since November for his campaign, much of it from trial lawyers, labor unions and other interest groups. When he was governor, Crist accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Fort Lauderdale lawyer Scott Rothstein and his associates. Crist says there was no quid pro quo, but appointed Rothstein to the Judicial Nominating Commission. He also partied with Rothstein, an overbearing jerk and insufferable egotist.

If you were to ask either Crist or Scott what they’ve promised this year’s big donors in return for their contributions, they’d say, “Nothing.”

But what those big donors will get for their money is access, the governor’s ear.

And, more often than not, that access leads to support for their legislation, their exemption, their tax break, their appointee to a state board, commission or the bench.

Ask those big political contributors what they expect for their money and you get high-minded, altruistic answers: “We believe in the democratic process and want the best man to win.” There may be a scintilla of truth to that, but the unvarnished truth is those big contributors don’t want good government, they want government that’s good for them.

Dante Fascell knew the difference. Our current crop of politicians seem to have forgotten.