Spend an entertaining day listening to men who have been governor of Florida, and it isn't hard to come to this conclusion: Over the last 40 years, this state has had a pretty good run of well-intended, decent men who can each point to lasting achievements.
As voters prepare to elect a new governor this fall, six governors reminisced last week at the University of Central Florida. They offered history lessons, recounted accomplishments and offered perspective that today's candidates should hear. The group stretched from the eccentric Claude Kirk, who in 1966 became the first Republican governor elected since Reconstruction, to Jeb Bush, the first Republican to be re-elected governor who is cramming as much as he can into his final months in office. One half-expected the late Lawton Chiles to slide through a side door in his walking boots. But he was well represented by Buddy MacKay, his lieutenant governor who served several weeks as governor after Chiles died near the end of his second term in 1998.
There is a certain amount of luck and timing in being elected governor. Kirk and Republican Bob Martinez (1987-1991) benefited from turmoil in the Democratic Party. Democrats Reubin Askew (1971-1979) and Bob Graham (1979-1987) were blips in the opinion polls early in their first campaigns, then won runoffs to become the party nominee.
Who can imagine voters today electing a vaudeville act like Kirk (who played the role wonderfully at UCF with such gems as pointing to his successors and declaring, "They are all the fruit of my loins.")
Who can imagine a candidate like Askew, undoubtedly the best governor of the last 40 years, campaigning for a new corporate income tax while he was running himself?
Who can imagine a new candidate for governor popping up now and winning with a $100 limit on campaign contributions, like Chiles did when he jumped into the race in April 1990?
It matters who moves into the Governor's Mansion, because a single governor can affect generations of Floridians.
Askew, who still speaks with remarkable clarity, purpose and humility, pushed through tax reform, opened up government with the "Sunshine Amendment" and appointed the first African-American to the Florida Supreme Court. Chiles dramatically lowered the infant mortality rate. Martinez championed the nation's most ambitious land-preservation program. Bush has revolutionized public education with standardized testing.
But failures also can affect the future. Martinez bowed to pressure and forced the repeal of the services tax after just six months in 1987, and there hasn't been any real tax reform since. Chiles tried and failed. Bush pushed tax cuts instead of tax reform.
Voters have to size up the person as well as their policies, because governors also are defined by their handling of the unexpected. For Kirk in the '60s, it was a teachers' strike (he recalls the moms being with him and against the teachers - until their kids had been out of school for a few days). Graham dealt with the Mariel boat lift in 1980 and riots in Miami. Martinez pushed for abortion restrictions following a U.S. Supreme Court opinion giving states more discretion, but the Legislature rejected them all and weakened him further politically. Chiles coped with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a challenge topped only by the unprecedented string of hurricanes that Bush has admirably handled.
Some advice came from unexpected corners. Bush, never one to self-analyze, suggested saving time for reflection and acknowledged he's "not the poster child for that." Graham recommended setting priorities and prioritizing the priorities, then acknowledged his administration early on pursued hundreds of ideas simultaneously.
They were polite about it, but some of the former governors don't like some of the changes they see. Askew wishes the system he created for the independent screening of judicial appointments had been written into the Constitution; the Republican-led Legislature scrapped it and handed complete control to Bush. MacKay regrets endorsing term limits. Graham remains skeptical about Bush's heavy reliance on standardized testing in public schools and suggests a broader approach to improving and measuring student achievement.
While Florida has changed dramatically, the unique gathering of the governors hosted by the Lou Frey Institute of Politics & Government at UCF reinforced that some of the most serious challenges remain the same. Growth management is still an oxymoron. The quality of public education, while improving by some measures, is nowhere near where it should be. The tax system still relies too heavily on the sales tax on goods, a problem ignored in good times like these but one that forced Martinez and Chiles to make hundreds of millions in painful budget cuts when the economy slowed.
Now Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher and Democrats Jim Davis and Rod Smith are explaining why they should be governor and how they would build on the work of their predecessors. Have faith in the voters to make a good choice. Over the last 40 years, their batting average isn't perfect. But it's pretty darn high.