MODERN POLITICAL FLORIDA
A GOVERNMENT TO MATCH
The end of World War II meant the start of four decades of
record breaking population growth and enormous economic and social changes. It
was up to the politicians to catch up to all these forces and many would say Florida's political
system is still running behind other events.
Florida was not exactly stagnant in the 1940's with a
growth rate three times the national average, but as Spessard
Holland, a Bartow born World War I veteran, started his first peacetime
year as Governor in 1946, Florida
was beginning to explode in economic activity. The thousands of soldiers who
lived and trained in the Sunshine
State during the War had
fond memories of settling in the state. The United
States population was on the move after World War II, and
many people had Florida
penciled as a place of opportunity.
By the time Holland was succeeded as Governor
in 1948 by Milton resident Millard Fillmore
Caldwell, who had served in the United States House from 1933-1941, Florida was booming.
While Caldwell was part of the conservative Democratic rural wing that
dominated Florida politics prior to World War II, Caldwell supported such
important projects as road construction and the Educational Minimum
Foundation Program, which attempted to boost educational funding in poor, rural
North Florida supported Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond
over President Harry S Truman in 1948, showing the growing division between
rural Florida and the growing towns of South Florida. Lurking just below the political surface
was the emerging presence of a Republican Party in counties where large
numbers of retirees and Northerners began to congregate. They would soon be
joined by Florida natives seeking an
alternative to the forces of status quo in many Florida communities.
In 1948, Floridians selected Blountstown born lawyer Fuller Warren
over reforming cattleman Daniel T. McCarty of Fort Pierce. It seemed another victory for
the Northern Florida backed coalition of rural
politicians. Warren, however, maintained his
flamboyant style but backed many projects desirous to South
Florida, including a 3% sales tax to finance new public
associations with organized crime figures undermined his activism and he almost
faced impeachment in the state legislature. He lost most of his political
influence among conservative groups and left Tallahassee a disillusioned and impoverished
In 1950, Florida still trailed Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia in
population, but the state was not only growing much more quickly than the rest
of the country, Florida was rapidly emerging as an urban society, much to the
chagrin of Florida's rural politicians. Tourism replaced agriculture as Florida's top industry. Generations
of future farmers were turning to jobs in construction and hotel management
when they used to consider agribusiness as a career.
Florida hotels and motels got bigger and
bigger, symbolized by the 500 room Fontainebleau
in Miami Beach.
Television and motion pictures captured the booming prosperity of South Florida as automobiles and airplanes replaced
railroads and boats as the mode of transport for the visitors.
Massive highway projects started in the 1950's, including the Sunshine Skyway
Bridge spanned Tampa Bay,
ending of St. Petersburg-Bradenton ferry, and the Florida Turnpike
(originally Sunshine State Parkway).
The growth of roadways could not keep up with the traffic. The 1950's were
"Florida's Golden Years" in the
sense the entire land assumed Florida's
growth who pay for the rapid construction of roadways and public
POLITICS OF DECENTRALIZATION
politics may have been modified by the influx of Northerners moving south and
by the need to lure tourists, but politics was also shaped by geography. Only Texas and California
have as many urban centers separated by miles of terrain. Jacksonville
is 300 miles north of Miami and 300 miles east
of Pensacola. A
statement that gets votes in South Florida, will be rejected by voters in the Panhandle. To run a
statewide campaign requires expensive television coverage of some twenty media
markets. No one metropolitan area can dominate Tallahassee politics.
New industries created new political coalitions. In 1950 a 56 foot WAC
Bumper missile was launched at Cape Canaveral and Florida became the destination of future
technology and skill. Soon aviation and engineering firms were looking at Orlando, Cocoa, and Titusville as business
friendly sites with wonderful climates.
The 1950's was a conservative era and in Florida, it led to one of the most controversial and
brutish campaigns in state politics when Congressman George A. Smathers of Miami, with the backing of Ed Ball and
other big business groups, ran against his old mentor Senator Claude Pepper.
Branding the liberal New Dealer a victim of Communist and socialist forces, Smathers showed a low brow campaign could win elections.
Pepper eventually showed up as Miami's
Congressman while Smathers roamed the Senate from
1951 to 1969.
On the state level, Florida elected
reformer Daniel T. McCarthy of Fort
Pierce on a ticket of turnpikes, centralized
purchasing, and modernization. Unfortunately, McCarthy, who was elected in 1941
Speaker of the House at age twenty-nine, suffered a stroke, putting President
of the Senate Charley E. Johns of Starke into the governorship. Johns
was a throwback to rural politics with a touch of Joe McCarthy-istic tactics as he combed the state university system in
search of left-wing subversives.
actions mobilized reformers and moderates who found a hero in LeRoy Collins of Tallahassee,
a twenty year state legislator and a man, despite historic roots in Old
Florida, promoted new ideas. Collins' election helped the Southern half of
Florida to promote legislature reapportionment and a moderate approach to the
most significant Supreme Court decision in the twentieth century, Brown vs.
Board of Education (1954), the end of segregated public institutions in the
It would take the later Baker vs. Carr decision to establish
one man, one vote districts, but Collins would provide Florida with a policy of moderation and
leadership as the struggle over integration took place. As chairman of the
National Governor's Conference, Collins presented to the outside world, the
image of Florida
as the leader of the New South.
THE TURBULENT SIXTIES
The 1960's was a decade of social
conflict over civil rights and Vietnam.
The 1950's was a period of boom and growth (78.7% in
population); the 1960's had almost as much growth but the turmoil and change of
events dominated people's image of the decade. The civil rights movement boomed
in Florida at
a time when Ferris Bryant, a more conservative, methodical leader took
over as Governor. Florida
had its share of demonstrations and embarrassing confrontations with little
successful management from Bryant's people.
More than ever, Florida's
image of modernity and openness contrasted with the state's political apparatus
which included a part time legislature, a Constitution designed in 1885 when
cotton planters and steamboat owners ran the economy, and a Governor who shared
executive power with an elected Cabinet with more stability and experience than
the Chief Executive. When an undynamic leader like
Bryant was in office, state government resembled a tribe of chiefs in search of
Indians to control.
Floridians, many from the Northeast and Midwest, operated under the illusion
did not have the racial problems of Southern states. Many transplanted Yankees
lived in highly segregated developments, often in counties where the influx of
newcomers limited greatly the role of African-Americans, who didn't identify
with traditional Southern Democrats or the newcomers and retirees.
successorHaydon Burns, a former Jacksonville mayor, seemed unoriginal in handling not just
the issue of civil rights and racial tension, he appeared overwhelmed by the
crisis of thousands of Cubans pouring into Dade County
to escape Fidel Castro's politics. The Cuban influx diluted the employment
goals of African-Americans ready for economic and political change.
was changing as far as its electorate was concerned. This became evident when a
liberal Miami Democrat Robert King High won his party's nomination, but
lost to colorful Jacksonville insurance man
Republican Claude R. Kirk Jr, the first
Republican Governor in Tallahassee
showed the influence of transplanted Northern Republicans, conservative
retirees and Panhandle regulars, and an acceptance to look at the Republicans
as an alternative to rule. In 1968, Florida
elected Edward Gurney as the first Republican Senator from Florida since
The 1960's was a time of great changes in Florida. Thespace program put Florida
on the global map, and on July 16, 1969, Florida
became the home port for the first landing on the moon, just as French writer
Jules Verne a century earlier.
More significant to the daily lives of most Floridians were the Supreme
Court decisions forcing the reapportionment of the state legislature and the
end of the rural coalition called "the Pork Chop gang" by Miami newspapers. The
shift to an urban legislature meant the development of the Constitution of
1968, creating a more efficient state government while giving counties and
cities the home rule authority needed to solve modern problems quickly.
In 1970 Pensacola state
senator Reubin Askew defeated Kirk and headed Florida toward moderate
urban change. Important to Florida's
national political image was a Sunshine Law requiring financial disclosure and
meetings open to the public. In 1971, Florida
gained an even more lasting identify when Walt Disney opened his Magic
Kingdom theme park. New tourist facilities sprung up like mushrooms and so
much ink was spent on the tourist boom, that few noticed that Florida's more traditional industries were
diversifying and using new technology to modernize operations. Despite the
political promotion of Florida's new plants, Florida's state
government seemed an obstacle to growth.
election in 1979 of moderate Miami
land developer Robert "Bob" Graham was in a sense an approval
vote for the platform of moderation and change advocated by Askew. It also
indicated that the state would no longer gang up against Dade County candidates
Graham found the serious problems facing Florida in the 1980's to be a blend of
Northern type problems such as urban poverty, pollution, crime, and
deteriorating roads and bridges, and typical Florida problems such as serving
huge numbers of retirees, immigrants, and political refugees, surviving oil
wars and bad economies that hurt tourism, and unifying a multiethnic,
Minorities played a bigger part in Florida
politics. Reapportionment of the legislature gave more power to large
cities, where 80% of Florida's
African-Americans lived. The black population may have declined percentage wise
nearly every decade since 1860, but concentration of black voters in urban
areas meant African-Americans would be elected to Tallahassee for the first time since
The Civil Rights Era in Florida
meant slow but marked changes. While Florida
ousted the poll tax in 1937, most Florida
voting laws resembled the South. In Panhandle Florida the black vote was still minimal in
the 1950's. In 1950 Madison
County (48% African
American) had no black voters.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, coupled with
reapportionment toward the urban centers, opened the political door for black
leaders. By 1992, Carrie Meek, Corrine Brown, and Alcee Hastings would become
the first black Floridians to serve in the United States House of
Representatives since Reconstruction.
The Cuban migration to Dade County not only turned Miami
into a more international city, it made Miami a
gateway to Latin America attracting economic and political refugees from the
Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
lifestyle and climate began to attract large migrations of Asians by the
1980's. The Seminoles, only 2,000 strong, used the courts and some old
treaties to gain a corporate foothold in the tourist trade of Hillsborough and Broward Counties.
Neither Bob Graham or Republican Robert "Bob" Martinez, a
former Democratic union leader and later Mayor of Tampa, could find the
addition needed monies to fund the increasing needs of the state. Martinez was the state's
first Hispanic Governor. It was once assumed that Florida's tourists and growing population
would offset the increased costs of needed services. What was not understood
was the rising cost of Federally mandated entitlements
in the areas of medical, educational, and social services to the retired poor,
immigrants, the native poor, and others that constitute large groups in Florida.
fragmented and diverse political society, each with its own agenda and
supporters, makes it increasing difficult to develop a statewide consensus for
new taxes. Large groups, such as the retired, provide powerful lobbies against
raising taxes. The rising cost of these services have
reduced the percentage of state funds available for education, the environment,
and public construction. This has added to the confusion of problems never
resolved despite increases in funding.
The election of LakelandU.
S. Senator Lawton Chiles in 1990 verified the domination of the urban areas
or moderate candidates that have won major Florida races in recent years. The election
did not assure any solutions, however, to Florida's political problems. The rise of
the Republican Party in Florida by adding
Northern transplants and conservative Democrats angry with the National
Democratic Party made Chiles'
platform moderate and fiscally conservative.
The rising cost of education and health care were major issues which crossed
party lines. Chiles and his
lt. governor Ken MacKay Jr, a six term Congressman from Ocala, was reelected for second and final
terms in 1994. On December 12, 1998, Chiles suddenly died just thirty
days from the end of his administration. MaKay served
as forty-second Governor.
In 1998, John Ellis "Jeb" Bush, son of a former President and soon to be brother
of another was elected Florida's
third Republican Governor. His election marked a drastic shift in Florida politics since he was from Miami, now a source for GOP votes from Cuban
voters who backed the Spanish-speaking realtor with the Mexican wife and Latin
American studies degrees. Carrying the Panhandle, the Gulf Coast,
and much of the I-4 corridor, the Republicans held sway in both houses of the
legislature as well as the Governorship, the first time since Reconstruction. Fort
Lauderdale, once a Republican area, became the most powerful liberal Democratic stronghold.
Governor Bush was reelected and as
the first Florida Governor of the twenty-first century discovered that the
booming, diverse state had all the major problems facing the nation. Crowded
schools beset by problems often related to changing family issues, rising
health costs in the most elderly of states, and an economy sensitive to oil
prices, foreign affairs, and transportation demands. Florida was still viewed as a Rich Child to
outsiders, but local residents found living in paradise had its problems and
The election of moderate reforming
Republican Charlesâ€œCharlie"Crist of Saint Petersburg showed the new dominance of Florida urban areas in the politics of the Sunshine State.