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.
Ron Sachs, a spokesman for Askew, said he had been hospitalized on Saturday with pneumonia and that his condition had worsened after having a stroke.
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 ‘80s 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. He also reformed penal statutes, streamlined the judiciary, achieved no-fault divorce and auto insurance laws, raised welfare benefits and extended workers’ compensation to migrant laborers.
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 also began to integrate state government, starting with the Highway Patrol. 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. He pushed for ethics-in-government laws. When legislators balked, he took the issue to the voters, who overwhelmingly backed financial disclosures by public officials and barred former officials from lobbying their agencies for two years.
In his final years in office — he was limited by law to two four-year terms — the governor, reacting to critics who called him anti-business, supported corporate tax breaks and foreign investment in the state.
His national stature grew throughout his governorship. 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.
He was elected chairman of the Southern Governors’ Conference in 1974 and of the Democratic Governors’ Conference in 1976. In 1979, Carter named him the U.S. Trade Representative, with Cabinet and ambassador’s rank, a post he held for two years.
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.
But his campaign never gained traction. While progressive on civil rights, he was more conservative in some ways than his rivals — among them former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson — favoring the death penalty and generally opposing abortion and civil rights for gays. In March 1984, he dropped out after finishing last in the New Hampshire primary (won by Hart).
In 1988, lacking funds, he halted a brief run for the U.S. Senate, ending his political career. He later taught government and politics at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Florida and Florida State University, which named its school of public administration and policy after him.
Reubin O’Donovan Askew was born on Sept. 11, 1928, in Muskogee, Okla., the youngest of six children of Leon and Alberta Askew. His father, a carpenter, was an alcoholic, and his mother divorced him and moved the brood to her hometown, Pensacola, Fla., in 1937. She was a waitress, seamstress and hotel maid, and Reubin shined shoes, bagged groceries and delivered newspapers to help support the family. He attended Christian Science services with his mother before becoming a Presbyterian later in life.
He graduated from Pensacola High School in 1946, served two years in the Army and, through the GI Bill, attended Florida State in Tallahassee, where he was student body president. He joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and, after taking a degree in public administration in 1951, became an Air Force officer during the Korean War. He graduated from law school at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, in 1956 and joined a Pensacola law firm.
That same year he married Donna Lou Harper. They had two children, Kevin and Angela. They and his wife survive him.
After two years as the assistant solicitor for Escambia County, he won a seat in Florida’s House of Representatives in 1958. He served four years in the House, and eight more as a state Senator, then launched his campaign for governor.
“Running for office was something I knew I had to do,” he said. “I feel God has plans for the world and men. If I had any talent, I had to use it for public service.”