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Sept. 11, 1928 – March 13, 2014

MIAMI – Reubin Askew, a progressive “New South” Democrat who promoted racial equality and ethics reforms as a two-term governor of Florida in the 1970s and campaigned briefly for the presidency in 1984 and for the Senate in 1988, died early Thursday in Tallahassee, Fla. He was 85.

The cause was complications of pneumonia compounded by a stroke suffered while in hospital care, said his spokesman, Ron Sachs.

Along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Askew was part of a new wave of moderate Southern governors in the 1970s and 1980s who embraced progressive ideas on racial issues, the environment, education, crime, taxation and economic growth.

He was all but unknown outside his conservative panhandle constituency when he ran for governor in 1970, although he had served 12 years in the State Legislature. But he was tall, lean and telegenic – and he promised to tax corporate profits. He caught fire with voters who saw him approvingly as a populist tilting against big business, and he defeated the incumbent Republican, Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr., handily.

It was apparent from the start that this governor would be different. He did not drink, smoke or swear, was a Presbyterian elder and projected a strong sense of morality.

“We served no alcohol for eight years in the Governor’s Mansion,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with FloridaTrend.com. “I always laughed and said you’d be surprised how early people go home when you don’t give them any alcohol.”

In his first term, Askew pushed through a 5 percent corporate income tax, and eased consumer, property and school taxes: minor miracles in a revenue-starved, anti-tax state.

While the Legislature resisted his ideas for education reforms and for a consumer advocate, the governor protected environmentally fragile lands, restricted coastal construction and blocked oceanfront casinos. He named blacks to state commissions and boards, and supported proposals to bus children to desegregate public schools.

Re-elected in a 1974 landslide, he appointed the first black justice of the Florida Supreme Court and the first black since Reconstruction to head a state agency.

In 1972, he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. The nominee, Sen. George S. McGovern, discussed the vice presidency with him, but he was reticent.

In 1981, he began exploring a run for the Democratic presidential nomination. He visited all 50 states and announced his candidacy in 1983, billing himself as “a different Democrat.”

A Harvard study called him one of the century’s 10 best state leaders, along with Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

His presidential campaign never gained traction.

New York Times