Legendary Leader Championed Civil Rights, Open Government
Former Florida Governor Reubin O’Donovan Askew, 85, an icon in state politics renowned for his integrity, popularity and pioneering leadership, died early this morning, surrounded by beloved members of his family, at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare. He had been admitted to the hospital last Saturday, suffering from aspiration pneumonia, and his condition worsened when he also suffered a stroke.
Askew, whose name is synonymous with the Golden Age of Florida Politics, served as Florida’s 37th governor from 1971-1979. He was widely known as a progressive reformer for his bold, forward-thinking leadership on civil rights, tax reform and government accountability “in the Sunshine.”
At a time when the state and country were struggling with government scandals, Askew was a national role model for his unquestioned integrity and he was considered one of Florida’s all-time best governors. The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University rated him one the nation’s top 10 governors of the 20th Century.
Askew, a Democrat from Pensacola, was legendary for his effective and progressive leadership, especially on civil rights issues, ethics laws, openness in government and the state’s first corporate profits tax. His populist policies made him a major national figure.
Askew won the Governor’s race in 1970 by defeating incumbent Republican Claude Kirk. He later won re-election, in 1974, making him the first Florida governor to be elected to a second successive four-year term. His approval ratings were so high in office, many believed he could have run successfully for a third term.
Askew was one of the first “New South” governors, elected the same year as Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Each supported busing children to achieve racial integration, a controversial idea at the time.
Before being elected governor, Askew actively opposed racial segregation and supported reapportionment. As governor, Askew appointed the first black Florida Supreme Court justice and the first woman to head a state agency cabinet post.
Askew’s own unflinching integrity carried over in his advocacy of open government laws that were revolutionary in his day. As a state lawmaker, Askew was a leading champion of Florida’s 1967 Sunshine Law that required government commissions and boards to hold open meetings accountable to the public. He similarly was a champion of government documents and records being fully open to the public.
As governor, he initiated and campaigned statewide for the “Sunshine Amendment” to the state’s Constitution to require full and public financial disclosure by candidates and key public officials. Under the law, public officials must take a two-year hiatus before becoming lobbyists. The measure became a stellar national model.
Askew also advocated for tax reform, supporting fairness in a corporate income tax and helping to lower other consumer taxes. Household exemption amounts were increased, and Askew repealed consumer taxes on household utilities and apartment rentals.
The long and legendary career of Askew as a leader in Florida politics started when he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1958. He served two terms before moving to the Florida Senate in 1962, where he served until 1970, the year of his initial gubernatorial victory.
Reubin O’Donovan Askew was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma and moved with his divorced mother and five siblings to Pensacola in 1937. From those humble beginnings, he graduated from Pensacola High School in 1946 and served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper.
Askew graduated from Florida State University in 1951 with a B.S. in public administration and went on to law school at the University of Florida. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before returning to Florida and beginning his political career.
After leaving the Governor’s office, Askew served in President Carter’s term as the cabinet-level U.S. Trade Representative. He considered a bid for U.S. president in 1984 and the U.S. Senate in 1988.
Askew spent his later years still advocating for good government and integrity in politics and leadership.
Florida State University has the Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy. The governor held an eminent scholar chair and taught there for many years. Located in the state capital of Tallahassee, the Askew School is considered one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious government programs.
The University of Florida’s Reubin O’D. Askew Institute on Politics and Society brings Floridians together to discuss critical issues. The institute, created in 1994, serves as a forum for statewide issues while promoting civic engagement.
The Askew legacy will live on through the laws he passed and the students he taught and encouraged to become leaders in government and actively involved citizens.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Donna Lou, two children – son, Kevin Askew, and daughter, Angela White — and several grandchildren.