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To see Graham in charge, look to governor years

He cracked down on crime and crusaded for better education, and his "workdays" convinced voters he was in touch.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 4, 2003

photo
[Times files: Jan. 3, 1979]
When Bob Graham was sworn in as governor, few knew what to expect from the Dade County Democrat.
[Times files: Oct. 22, 1978]
Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham, shown during his campaign for governor, is considered by many historians one of Florida's top governors of he 20th century.

Ask Bob Graham what sets him apart from the other Democrats running for president and his first response is often the same: "Major executive experience."

Graham, expected to formally launch his campaign Tuesday, may have been a U.S. senator for the past 16 years, but it's his eight years as Gov. Graham in Florida that put him on the right side of history.

Four of the past five presidents were governors, including President Bush of Texas and Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter who came from the South.

So how did Gov. Graham perform?

Here's how Dempsey Barron, the late Democratic state Senate powerbroker, described Graham during his first term: "The weakest ever to serve."

Barron at the end of Graham's second term: "He was a strong and decisive governor, sometimes almost hard-headed, but he always did his homework."

Historians often include Graham in the pantheon of Florida's top 20th century governors, along with LeRoy Collins in the 1950s and Reubin Askew in the 1970s.

Still, he has a record ripe for political attack.

Graham raised taxes. Crime rose under his watch, and he left his successor with overcrowded prisons that led to thousands of inmates being released early. He campaigned for tax reform but made only modest changes and left the hard choices to Gov. Bob Martinez. He talked repeatedly of hoisting Florida's public school system into the nation's top quarter, but while he made strides, Florida's schools today sit toward the bottom of most education rankings.

By the time his second term ended, though, Graham was widely hailed as a crusader for education, the environment and economic development. He was so popular that he easily defeated incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Paula Hawkins in 1986 even as Martinez became the second Republican to be elected governor since Reconstruction.

"Graham was a roll up your sleeves and get it done kind of governor, and the sort of centrist, pragmatist that Floridians jump at," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State University political scientist. "He would say it's time we started treating Florida with some dignity and respect and give it some commitment. That resonated with people."

That Graham managed to be elected governor in 1978 is political legend in Florida.

Here was an obscure and generally liberal state legislator from Dade County hoping to rise from a crowded Democratic primary and appeal to Florida's broad electorate.

A hokey gimmick turned the millionaire, Harvard-educated intellectual into the workingman's candidate. He turned up across Florida on TV news broadcasts and local papers picking tomatoes, busing tables, heaving fertilizer bags. He called them his workdays.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, then a U.S. House member, had his own workdays. Graham and political consultant Bob Squier saw them as a tool to distinguish Graham and give him the common touch he lacked. It worked.

Aided by his homespun campaigning, $750,000 of his own money, top-tier political pros and an aggressive TV campaign, Graham defeated Attorney General Bob Shevin in a Democratic primary runoff after placing second in the first primary. From there, he won a lopsided victory over Republican drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd.

A lot of Tallahassee insiders weren't sure what to expect.

"From seeing him in the Legislature, we viewed him to be much more liberal than he was as governor," recalled Jon Shebel, president of the business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida. "He was very probusiness, and understood the things Florida needed. None of us had any idea about his executive capabilities, but he ended up being a great executive."

Nothing did more to quash Graham's liberal image than his support for the death penalty, which hadn't been carried out in Florida since 1964. Graham wasted little time putting the electric chair back to work, and gained national attention in the process. Bolstering his law-and-order image, he signed more than 150 death warrants over his two terms, and 16 people were executed.

Graham had a rocky start in Tallahassee. Critics in the Democrat-controlled Legislature and editorial boards derided him as an indecisive leader with loads of ideas but insufficient focus and backbone for making them happen.

"The governorship is soft because the ambitious Graham molds his political future on a mound of Jello, which quivers when the legislature quakes and melts to eager compromise," said a 1981 St. Petersburg Times editorial, famously dubbing Graham "Governor Jello."

Staff shuffling helped him find his footing by the tail end of his first term. Without great disruption he led the state through a series a crises: riots in Miami; massive evacuations because of hurricane threats; a huge influx of Cubans and Haitians that prompted Graham to declare a state of emergency and mobilize state and local authorities; a growing South Florida drug trade that led Graham to call for more federal involvement; a truckers strike in his first year that prompted him to call out the National Guard.

Polls showed the early criticism did little to dampen public fondness for the man. He worked hard at connecting with the public, appearing at times to be campaigning full time. Despite a seemingly congenital aversion to pithy quotes, he used wit to maintain a rapport with Florida reporters that has been unmatched by any governor since.

His initiatives invariably had catchy slogans - "Save Our Rivers" - and his budget proposals came with splashy pictures and graphics, a novel approach at the time. His monthly workdays continued and still do, helping him knock down any suggestion of self-importance and softening his buttoned-down persona.

One day, newspapers might feature a photo of Graham in boxer shorts, hamming it up as an actor in The Fantasticks. Another day, it might be Graham and Jimmy Buffett, dressed as each other and singing Wasted Away Again in Tallahasseeville.

That light touch played well, as did his focus on popular issues such as schools and the environment.

"He was hugely popular because he touched Floridians on critical issues, and because he reached out to them in very personal ways - his workdays, especially," said University of Florida historian David Colburn. "I don't think he achieved what some others achieved, but if you ranked the governors of the 20th century, it would be Collins, Askew and right below them Graham."

On the environment, Graham led an unprecedented effort to buy and protect sensitive land. For schools, he raised graduation standards, put more emphasis on testing, and dramatically increased spending. In the process, he made Florida a national leader in education improvement, recognized by no less than Republican Education Secretary William Bennett.

His first term included a recession, but per-pupil spending rose 11 percent when adjusted for inflation, compared to 3.9 percent over Gov. Jeb Bush's first term. Per-pupil spending rose 39 percent during Graham's two terms, after accounting for inflation. In Pinellas County, the starting salary of a teacher with a bachelor's degree rose from $9,300 to $18,050 over Graham's tenure.

Many veteran Florida educators recall the Graham years as the golden era for Florida schools. Often sporting a blue and white "Education Means Business" button on his lapel, Graham repeatedly called for pushing Florida's public school system into the top quarter nationwide, based on factors ranging from test scores to funding.

He didn't quite get there, although Florida's university system in 1987 was ranked among the country's top 10. Graham concentrated on the higher education system, trying to strengthen the central oversight board, the Board of Regents, and ensure they looked at the system as a whole.

"He believed strongly that Florida could be great if it didn't put a college of this and a college of that on every campus, but truly focused our limited resources on making flagship universities," said former state Rep. Sam Bell. "We were on the threshold of greatness when he left."

Gov. Bush has gone the opposite way, decentralizing decisionmaking in higher education. Graham last year led a successful ballot initiative aimed at reinstating much of the higher education structure he so strongly supported.

Graham's initiatives cost money. He raised sales, corporate, gasoline, cigarette and gas taxes, along with assorted fees. He did it even as many political leaders believed that a sweeping antitax initiative passed in California reflected a growing national sentiment.

"Today is the day to fight against a ghost," he said in his 1983 State of the State speech. "That ghost is the fear of political retribution that could paralyze our will."

He also pushed tax relief, including increasing Florida's homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000, and creating tax incentives for new businesses.

Other than environmental land purchases, Graham's lasting legacy is dubious. Admirers say his success was based less on tangible changes than on raising expectations. Graham suggested as much in 1986 as he prepared to head to Washington:

"If you ask me what I'm proudest of, I think we have contributed to changing people's definition of what Florida is. We are now saying we are a state which competes with the very best in America."

- Times researchers Mary Maelstrom and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which contained information from Times files. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

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