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My Best Friend in the Senate

Mary, Congressman Harry Johnston, and their daughter, Becky Fitzgerald.

Post # 176, Bob McKnight's Florida Commentary

I saw a tall, lanky gentleman entering a meeting in the Florida Capitol in late 1974. We were attending a meeting of the House Committee on Natural Resources. I was a freshman in the House and he was a freshman Senator from West Palm Beach. His name was Harry Johnston. The meeting was packed and the subject was the Water Resources Act of 1974, sponsored by Rep. Jack Shreve of Merritt Island. The Senator was attending to testify on behalf of the bill.

From that time on, I became close friends with Senator Johnston, especially when he learned I hailed from the heart of his district in Palm Beach County, the City of Lake Worth. Here are a few of my random memories with and of Harry:

  • He once officiated my high school football game against his high school, after not playing each other for four years due to fights. My school, Lake Worth High beat his school, Palm Beach High in that game, 21-0 in 1961.

  • He once successfully represented an Eminent Domain case for my family in Lake Worth, against his long time Democratic lawyer friend, Jon Moyle.

  • He was close friends with a Palm Beach Judge named Gavin Letts. When I chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee funding Courts, he lobbied for pay raises for judges. But when it came time to vote on the pay raise, Harry went out of his way to disclose his relationship with Judge Letts and abstained voting. Harry's integrity was impeccable.

  • He had a dry and rapier like sense of humor. He once joked that some "idiot" among his constituents got a piece of the constituents' stationary and wrote a "stupid" letter to Harry. Unfortunately that constituent shared it with the press.

  • He once described one of his Bills to then Governor Bob Graham as "the Perfect Bill." His close friend, the Governor, vetoed it.

  • We bought townhouse condominiums next to each other on Lake Ella, and often ate and rode into work at the Capitol together.

  • We had a very painful disagreement when he abandoned his race for Senate President to support Senator Peterson and Senator Barron in 1982. Senator Ken Jenne joined him, but Senators Pat Frank, George Stuart, Mattox Hair, Ed Dunn, Paul Steinberg and I did not. I knew Harry was uncomfortable with the Senate President W. D. Childer's but his decision to support a long time foe caught me by surprise.

  • He once bragged that he and Andy McMullian were the only two people on earth that really knew how the Florida Retirement System worked. He said that was why he could never be assassinated.

  • He loved his original family home in West Palm Beach so much, so that when Mary tried to sell it, Harry was quick to point out to prospective buyers that it was in the direct path of commercial flights from PBI. It didn't sell.

  • He came to near fisticuffs with Republican Senator David McLain of Tampa on the floor over funding for the disabled. It was a near fight next to my desk, which I broke up.

  • Although best known (along with Senator George Stuart) for the Growth Management Act of 1985, he and Senator Ken Jenne also helped pass the landmark Competition in Health Care Act. I was particularly proud of the fact that Harry and Ken had been strong supporters of the Commission appointed by Governor Graham to research and draft the legislation, since I was it's Chairman.

  • When the Senate Coalition of Senator Barron took control of the Chamber in 1982, Senator Johnston was their deciding vote on the Appropriations Committee and quipped, "Why don't you just hand me the amendments and I will decide them to save us some time?" It was very true.

Senator Johnston and I became involved in a historic ethics case affecting one of his colleagues in the Senate, while I was still in the House, running for the Senate in 1978. I announced my candidacy with the understanding that long time incumbent Senator Ralph Poston of Miami was retiring. After my announcement, Poston was charged with a serious ethics violation of Senate Rules, attempting to profit from his office. Senator Johnston and Senator Mattox Hair of Jacksonville were appointed by the President to head up a Senate Special Committee to consider the charges against Poston. Johnston was clearly the best prepared member of the Committee. The Committee unanimously voted to Reprimand Poston and he decided to run for re-election to "clear his name." I beat him and two other candidates by a large number of votes to win that Senate seat in District 38.

Senator Johnston went on to become Senate President in 1985 and then ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1986. He served with great distinction in the Congress representing Palm Beach County for many years, until the corrupt administration of Speaker Newt Gingrich convinced Harry to retire from public service.

My best friend in the Senate, Harry Johnston passed on June 28, 2021. May he rest in peace.



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