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Shared musings on leadership

Five of Florida's former governors and Gov. Jeb Bush discuss where the state has been and where it is headed during a symposium.

Published March 27, 2006

ORLANDO - Florida's political past and present converged Monday, as six men who have run the state over the past 40 years offered reflections at a rare gathering of governors.

They included Gov. Jeb Bush, his Republican predecessors Claude Kirk and Bob Martinez, and Democrats Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Buddy MacKay, who served three weeks as governor after Lawton Chiles' death in December 1998. All were present except for Martinez, who appeared on video.

Part history lesson, part nostalgia trip, A Day With the Florida Governors was sponsored by the University of Central Florida.

Their styles, times and political views differed greatly, but they agreed on some themes, such as the phenomenal population growth as both an asset and a threat to Florida's quality of life.

The ballroom crowd of students and academics and a statewide audience watching Web casts from other campuses captured glimpses of an unusually reflective Bush.

With a cup of takeout coffee perched on the lectern, he recalled how he got married on a Saturday and then went back to school on Monday to get his degree as fast as possible - and hasn't stopped since.

"I haven't had 10 days off since then and I'm 53 years old," Bush said. "One suggestion I have is don't follow that path."

Rattling off his five leadership principles, Bush said big change always demands time and persistence. "Some people think I'm stubborn. I think it's determination," Bush said.

Now, as then, Askew remains the most outspoken of the chief executives. He said the influence of money in today's politics is "terrible," and he wished he had insisted that his plan for limiting the governor's role in judicial selection was made a part of the Constitution, so it couldn't have been changed by Republicans.

The white-haired Askew, who now teaches college courses in government, spoke with pride of his campaign for a tax on corporate income as a fair deal for consumers.

"It's a matter, frankly, sometimes of just taking a little risk and taking on a lot of people," Askew said.

In a statement unimaginable in today's political atmosphere, Graham boasted of having raised taxes several times as governor.

At the time, the influx of Mariel refugees from Cuba had driven up crime in South Florida, and Floridians were willing to pay more taxes for more police officers and prisons.

"This may be heresy to admit, but it's the record," Graham said.

The flamboyant Kirk, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, said his successors have not dealt adequately with a water shortage, pollution by sugar growers and high school dropouts. He recalled breaking ground for the UCF campus during his term as governor from 1967 to 1971.

"I dug the dirt that started this place," Kirk said.

A Day With the Florida Governors was organized by former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey, whose name adorns the Institute of Politics and Government at UCF.

The symposium began with a group of about 15 UCF students staging a peace demonstration as Bush began to talk. They stood and turned their backs to Bush and held signs reading "Books Not Bombs" in T-shirts that said "Students, Not Soldiers."

Some of the students are members of Students for a Democratic Society, a group that organized violent protests during the Vietnam War. They were protesting defense spending at universities such as UCF military research, but Bush defended the grants as beneficial to the state's economy.

As Bush finished his keynote address, he announced that he and his wife, Columba, will vacate the Governor's Mansion before his term ends next January, so his successor "can get prepared for the greatest ride of their lives."

[Last modified March 27, 2006, 23:22:56]

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