Ex-Governor Askew Dies

Article excerpt

Oft-regarded as one of the greatest holders of Florida's highest office -- the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard named him one of the Top 10 American governors of the 20th century -- he made a lasting imprint on civil rights, tax reform and financial transparency for public officials.

TALLAHASSEE

Onetime governor Reubin O'Donovan Askew, 85, died early Thursday, more than three decades after he held the state's highest office. Yet his legacy remains very much a vibrant part of Florida's political fabric.

Each year, public officials must disclose their income and financial interests because Askew, a two-term governor who served from 1971-79, convinced voters to pass a "Sunshine Amendment" requiring financial disclosure.

Corporations pay more than $2 billion in taxes each year to support schools, health care and other state programs because of Askew. At the same time, he made sure Floridians wouldn't pay a sales tax on residential utilities or long-term apartment rents.

Florida, as a southern state, has had a relatively harmonious racial history in part because of Askew's willingness to embrace issues such as busing to end school segregation, his appointment of the state's first black Supreme Court justice and his decision to pardon two African-American men who had once been condemned to die for a crime they did not commit.

Askew -- named one of the top 10 governors of the 20th century by John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University -- stood out. He was willing to take on unpopular and difficult issues and usually prevail.

His critics derided him a straitlaced teetotaler. But he won accolades for his unwavering principles and vision for the state.

Askew "was a man of conscience and conviction," Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith said.

"He never shied from a fight for a good and just cause," Smith added. "Whether it was advancing the cause of civil rights, such as appointing the first black Supreme Court justice and pushing for equal education, or championing women's rights, or confronting an unfair tax system, his unwavering commitment to 'the little person's voice' never faltered."

Jeb Bush, another powerful and effective governor who served two terms, said Askew "played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of our state during a time of substantial growth and change.

"He led on contentious issues, fought for equality and did what he believed was in the best interests of Florida families," Bush said. "Governor Askew always put principle before politics."

The hallmarks of Askew's leadership style became clear quickly after he took office in 1971, winning the election as a somewhat obscure state senator from Pensacola.

Askew had promised tax reform, including imposing the state's first income tax on corporations. Facing concentrated opposition from the business lobby, Askew first convinced a reluctant Legislature to place the corporate tax on the ballot. Then he had to campaign for its popular support.

One of his most effective campaign tools was a shirt. His aides bought a shirt at a Sears in Miami and another at a Sears in Atlanta, with Askew arguing that the consumers were paying the same price for the shirts although Sears had to pay a $500,000 corporate tax in Georgia but only $2,000 in Florida.

The Sears shirt from Georgia "showed that the corporate tax wasn't being passed on" to consumers, Askew recalled in a 1998 interview with a Florida State University publication.

Florida voters backed Askew's tax reform with a 70 percent vote in 1971. Those two shirts are now in the state archives.

At the same time that he was confronting corporate interests, Askew took on another controversial issue: busing students to help integrate segregated schools. This was during the same era in which Alabama Gov. George Wallace was building his legacy on a strident anti-segregation campaign.

Giving a commencement speech at the University of Florida in August 1971, Askew threw his support behind busing. …