In a better United States where only character, demonstrated skill, experience and leadership ability were necessary to become President, Reubin Askew would have been one. Unfortunately looks, luck, money and timing are important too. Askew had the looks, all right; he just missed the other three.
Never mind. Reubin Askew, who died yesterday, did all right.
His father was an alcoholic, and soon his mother had divorced him and was supporting Reubin and his five siblings as a single mother in Pensacola, Florida. She worked as a waitress, seamstress and hotel maid, while Reubin shined shoes, bagged groceries, delivered newspapers and sold his mother’s homemade pies door to door to do his part to support the family. After graduating from high school in Pensacola, Askew served two years in the Army and, thanks to the G.I. Bill, graduated from Florida State in Tallahassee, where he was elected student body president. He was an Air Force officer during the Korean War, and in 1956 graduated from the University of Florida law school. That same year he joined a Pensacola law firm, and married Donna Lou Harper, who remained his wife for 57 years, until he died.
Askew ran for Florida’s House of Representatives in 1958, and won. After four years in the House, and eight more as a state senator, he ran for governor. He was already nicknamed “Reubin the Good,” and his opponent, Republican Claude Kirk, ridiculed the well-publicized fact that Askew, a devout Christian, never drank, smoked or used curse words by referring to him as a “mama’s boy,” not tough enough for high office. Askew’s rebuttal: “I love my mama.” He won easily.A populist and progressive in a conservative state with a corrupt political culture, Governor Askew immediately pressed for reforms designed to make state government more transparent and responsive to the public’s needs, including the poor and traditionally marginalized minorities. Askew integrated the state highway patrol and other state agencies, and vigorously supported the controversial busing of school children to put an end to school segregation. He championed long-overdue consumer and environmental protection laws and regulation, and reduced individual property taxes by offsetting them with the state’s first corporate income tax.
Governor Askew ushered into law fair legislative reapportionment that increased representation in the growing population centers of southern and central Florida, and ended a rigged system that had allowed the state’s government to be dominated by an entrenched political cabal. After his landslide reelection victory in 1974, Askew appointed the first black justice to the state supreme court, the first African American to lead a state agency and the first black cabinet official in Florida since Reconstruction. Askew turned his attention to ethics reforms in a political culture that had stubbornly resisted them, such as requiring the disclosure of financial holdings by public officials and a mandated two-year wait before ex-lawmakers could become lobbyists. The legislature, predictably, balked at these measures, so Askew got them passed by presenting voters with the first ballot initiative in Florida history, a constitutional Sunshine Amendment that repeated President Grover Cleveland’s famous declaration that “a public office is a public trust.” The law required elected officials to make a “full and public” disclosure of their financial interests. Askew’s reputation for courage and integrity was further demonstrated by his insistence that judges no longer be chosen based according to political patronage, but rather on the non-partisan recommendations of a nine-member nominating commission.
Said one political foe after Askew left office, “He has exhibited a kind of morality in office that causes people to have faith in the governor’s office to a higher degree than we have seen in a long, long time.” Said another: “Reubin Askew became governor of a state that was run out of a smoke-filled room and turned it into a model of open government.”
Askew was the U.S. Trade Representative in the Carter administration, then picked the wrong year to run for President. He had neither national name recognition not sufficient funds, and he finished last in the 1984 New Hampshire primary (everybody knew Walter Mondale would be the Democratic nominee), ending his presidential hopes. Later, in 1988, Askew ended his quest for a U.S. Senate seat, saying that the ceaseless fundraising requirements made him feel like a “professional beggar.” He ended his career teaching public policy and political science at Florida universities. I think his students were very fortunate.
Reubin Askew epitomizes the honorable public servant who enters politics for the right reasons, and ennobles the profession by his practice of it. His breed is all too rare, but his career stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished when political skill, courage, intelligence and principle reside in one individual dedicated to using power for good. There aren’t many politicians in the Ethics Alarms Heroes Hall of Honor, but if ever a man deserved to be there, it was Askew.