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Ten of the Best Bi-Partisan Legislators from the "Golden Age."

Post # 240, Bob McKnight's Florida Commentary

I remember Rep. Elaine Bloom (D., Miami Beach) saying to me that the first thing she had to do was to get Rep. Betty Easley (R., Clearwater) as a co-sponsor.

Because of my book, The Golden Years of the Florida Legislature, I am often asked who were among the best? Specifically, I had emphasized in the book how the majority Democrats work so effectively with the minority Republicans. The question then is who were the most effective on both sides of the aisle, and then working together. This is a rare occurrence today. Here is a list that I must emphasize is not exclusive--there are many more which could be included.

10 Florida Bi-Partisan Legislators That Made a Difference

Senator Dempsey Barron (D., Panama City) “Raw Political Power in the Senate”: He was the unquestioned power broker of the 20th century in Florida politics. It was said that the only road to the Senate Presidency was through his office—and from 1972-1988, that was proven to be true. As a matter of fact, in 1978, Barron himself said “Mattox Hair would have been Senate President, if he just would have picked up the phone and answered my call.” The senator did not have a great interest in specific legislation, other than encourage a shrinking of the state’s budget and bureaucracy, which was ironic because he primarily represented state employees. Senator Barron had legendary fights with his former colleague from Florida’s northwest, Governor Reubin Askew (D., Pensacola) over health care, ethics and the environment. But the greatest tribute to Barron’s political pugnaciousness came from his colleague Senator Lewis de la Parte (D., Tampa), who after losing a debate with Senator Barron, threw up his hands and declared, “Curse you Red Barron.”

Representative Sam Bell (D., Daytona Beach) “Raw Political Power in the House”: Sam Bell was one of the true intellectuals in the Florida Legislature with degrees from Dartmouth and Duke Law School. But due to his gregarious nature, he did not rest on his academic laurels, but rather threw himself into almost every major political fight of the 1970’s and 80’s. Some say it was his ‘take no hostages,’ reputation that caused the Republicans to support a long shot to deny Bell the Speakership in 1988. Unlike Barron, Bell was a true student of issues and a favorite of the legislative staff. Among his many outstanding staff were notables like Clerk of the House John Phelps; Representative Marjorie Turnbull; Chief of Staff to Governor Lawton Chiles, Tom Herndon; and Chief of Staff to Senator Bill Nelson, Peter Mitchell. Representative Bell chaired at one time or another virtually all the major committees in the Florida House of Representatives, including Appropriations, Rules and Calendar, and Commerce.

Representative Elaine Gordon (D., Miami Beach) “Social Issues”: Representative Elaine Gordon vaulted to the public’s attention with the introduction of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (“ERA”) to the Florida Constitution, in 1972. She recruited women and men to support the ERA and passed it a number of times in both the Senate and House, but always short of the required votes for ratification. She was not a single issue lawmaker however. As Chairwoman of the House Health and Rehabilitative Services Committee she supervised the passage of major reforms on issues affecting children, minorities, the disabled, and the elderly. In spite of her strident opinions, she was very popular with her colleagues, being elected Speaker Pro Tempore with Speaker James Harold Thompson (D., Gretna) in 1985-86.

Senator Bob Graham (D., Miami Lakes) “Progressive Public Policy”: It was often said that Senator Bob Graham was born to become a policy maker. The son of Senator Ernest Graham (D., Miami) and a graduate with honors from the University of Florida and the Harvard University School of law, Graham was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1966. He quickly developed a sharp focus on issues affecting public education, social services and the environment, laying the ground work for what would become successful campaigns for Governor and the U. S. Senate representing Floridians. Graham did manage to get crossways with Senate power Dempsey Barron, but went on to survive and actually grow in stature. Senator Graham remains today one of the prime policy visionaries within the national Democratic Party.

Representative Curt Kiser (R., Clearwater) “Effective Bi-Partisanship in House”: I first met Curt in the House of Representatives in 1976, when he approached me about forming a first time coalition of his Republican led Pinellas delegation with my Democratic led Dade delegation on water management issues. We did, and against all odds, rolled over the established road block of Speaker Don Tucker (D., Tallahassee) and his House lieutenants. Curtis went on to the same kind of success in the Florida Senate, with an emphasis on the environment, social services and economic development. Representative Kiser combined his obvious intellect with an engaging personality to become one of the most popular legislators of either party during the Golden Era of the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

Senator Clark Maxwell (R., Melbourne) “Finance and Tax Policy”: Senator Maxwell served in local government, the House and the Senate before taking control of the powerful Senate Finance and Tax Committee in 1980. That was the year that Governor Bob Graham had proposed a long overdue reform of the states’ tax structure. Chairman Maxwell’s leadership on the reform was made even more difficult by the turmoil in the Senate with liberal and conservative factions fighting among Senate Dean Dempsey Barron (D., Panama City) and Senate President W. D. Childers (D., Pensacola). But it was Senator Maxwell’s seasoned and calm stewardship that resulted in meaning tax reform as well as other bills benefiting his favorite issue of public education. Senator Maxwell went on to head up the states’ community college program, before his passing a few years ago.

Representative Herb Morgan (D., Tallahassee) “Appropriations Policy”: His negotiations with his Appropriations counterpart in the Senate, Jack Gordon (D., Miami Beach) were legendary—dubbed by the press as “The Rabbi against the Preacher.” Both Morgan and Gordon were very deep in their faith, but they fought like cats and dogs to resolve the state budget each year. Their job was actually easier than it appeared due to such great respect and love they had for one another. Significantly, the state operated then with balanced budgets, progressive taxes, and full funding for the critical needs of Florida--from the environment to the elderly and the criminal justice system. We lost Representative Morgan a few years ago to dastardly cancer, but his memory and reputation will long live in the Capitol. As his preacher once said, “Herb is the kind of guy that seldom comes along…thank God we had him for the time we did.”

Speaker Dick Pettigrew (D., Miami) “Governance Reform”: As I have said in Opinion Editorials before, probably no legislator more embodies all the positive attributes of serving in the Golden Era of the Florida Legislature (the 1970’s and ‘80’s) than Speaker Dick Pettigrew. He was first elected in 1964 and was given the daunting task of reorganizing all of Florida’s agencies, completed in 1969. His success was even more noteworthy because he did it without hardly any help neither from his Democratic colleagues in the Senate or from a solid entrenched conservative wing of the Democratic Party in the House. But with selective help from reform minded Republicans like Senator Ken Plante (R., Oviedo) and House Minority Leader Don Reed (R., Boca Raton), Pettigrew the greatest organizational reform in the history of the state.

Senator Ken Plante (R., Oviedo) “Effective Bi-Partisanship in Senate”: By his own admission, Senator Ken Plante was elected to the Florida Senate because of the disdain his district had for President Lyndon B. Johnson and his opponent, also named Johnson. But, the senator quickly proved his election was not a fluke. Although quiet in the upper chamber, he studied his colleagues and most importantly, the Senate Rules. As he progressed through his career, he gained knowledge of the rules, confidence, and especially friends. Senator Plante was one of the very few Republican Senators to chair a major standing committee during the Democratic control of the legislature. He became an acknowledged expert on the funding of social services and the criminal justice system. Senator Ken Plante remains today as one of the most popular lawmakers ever elected in Florida.

House Minority Leader Don Reed (R., Boca Raton) “Political Strategy”: Leader Reed was probably the best political mind in the Florida legislature, as the modern era lawmakers began taking control of the Capitol from the long time, and well entrenched Pork Chop Gang. He did not have a lot of like thinking Republicans to help him, so he successfully sought out disgruntled and vulnerable Democrats. He found enough help to derail many of the special projects that otherwise were commonplace in the Capitol. Reed was a ferocious orator, using his finely tuned law school debating skills. He is a good example of an outstanding legislator that might have been elected Governor and been very successful, if he just could have served a decade later. The House of Representatives recently recognized Leader Reed by naming the prime committee room in the House in his honor.


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