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Lessons in Contrarianism

Post # 223, Bob McKnight's Florida Commentary

In 1972, the political wisdom was to stay away from George Wallace's anti-busing straw vote in Florida. Governor Reubin Askew saw it as a chance to lead and defend busing. He went down as one of the country's most effective and courageous Governors, ever.

He was often a "contrarian."

We are now entering the peak of the 2022 election cycle. This applies to elections at all levels--federal for the U.S. Senate and Congress; the Florida Legislature for the Senate and House of Representatives; and for local races at the county, city and school board levels. If tradition holds, the campaigns will be funded by political action committees, and campaign professionals who will counsel the candidates to use the tried and true strategies of towing the party line. That means the Republicans will demand no taxes and smaller government while the Democrats will urge support for abortion and liberal rights. It is very unlikely that we will see any candidates advancing what I call a contrarian agenda--in other words, just the opposite of what is expected.

During the Golden Age of Florida Politics, the '70's and '80's, there were contrarian campaigns, and none more so than some of those of Florida's popular Governor Reubin Askew (D., Pensacola). I served in the Florida House of Representatives during his first term as Governor, so I did get to know him. His 1970 election as Governor was particularly memorable because his opponent was incumbent Republican Governor Claude Kirk, a conservative. Askew had won the Democratic primary in a glaring upset of favored Attorney General Earl Faircloth, after trailing in the first election. The mood in the country was for change as Floridians seemed to favor trying new and unknown State Senators Askew for Governor and Lawton Chiles for U.S. Senate.

Askew took a contrarian approach to his general election with Kirk and proposed new taxes. But rather than advocate adding taxes, he pushed a re-distribution of taxes so more people paid for government services. He cited buying a shirt in neighboring Georgia as compared to Florida; and the public seemed to like his candor. Askew beat Kirk by 250,000 votes, with the majority coming from the urban areas.

The popular new Governor of Florida took office during the growth of political conservatism in the South, led by Alabama Governor George Wallace. Florida, like many states in the South used busing to balance school segregation to comply with the new Federal Civil Rights Act. Wallace took great exception with busing and led a public straw vote in Florida against busing in Florida. Polls said funding from national conservatives across the country would drive the straw vote against busing.

Askew's political advisers laying the groundwork for a run for President in the future encouraged him to stay away from the straw vote. But for a contrarian, the straw vote was why he was serving in public office. Askew announced his support of busing and declared it vital for peaceful integration in Florida. The national press declared Askew dead politically and sure enough, the straw vote was against busing 74%-25%. But Askew immediately defended his position with great clarity and passion. Floridians accepted his explanation laced with extraordinary courage. Reubin Askew went on to win re-election by a wide margin and is now recognized as one of Florida's greatest governors. Significantly, a few years ago the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University named Reubin Askew one of the 10 greatest governors in the country during the 20th Century.

He did it as a contrarian.


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