With the passing last month of maybe Florida’s greatest governor, Reubin Askew, I was reminded of the background of his extraordinary success with the Legislature. In reflecting on that success, I have concluded that the credit for much of the Askew administration’s success was not an individual senator or representative, but rather the synergy of three state lawmakers during the Askew years — the “Golden Age of Florida Politics.”
Dick Pettigrew, D-Miami, was a seasoned and intelligent lawmaker. A successful attorney, he had an engaging smile, but a pausing oratory that often threw his opponents off stride. The speaker had to fight off constant attacks from the conservative elements of his party, the majority Democrats, and the smaller minority Republican Party. But with the help of a new governor, Reubin Askew, and a few courageous senators, Pettigrew led the House kicking and screaming into the passage of reforms in social services, the environment, judiciary, education, ethics and even passed the controversial corporate profits tax. Because of his easy-to-like personality, most of the conservative disdain was directed toward his staff and the other two members of the triumvirate.
House Rules Chair Murray Dubbin
Of all the new legislators elected from Miami during the mid-1960s, the most effective from day one was lawyer Murray Dubbin, a Democrat. He grew up in Miami politics and was an early and serious student of the rules of the House Representatives. He became a master at crafting political solutions that avoided singular winners and losers — but the appearance of a reasonable compromise. When Speaker Pettigrew was sworn in, there was no surprise who he would appoint to the critical position of rules chairman — the referee on what legislation would be heard. Subsequent Speaker Terrell Sessums, D-Tampa, gave some thought to appointing a new rules chairman but quickly learned how deep Dubbin’s political roots grew in the Capitol during the Golden Age.
House Appropriations Chairman Marshall Harris
In contrast to the pleasing personalities of Speaker Pettigrew and Chairman Dubbin, House Appropriations Chairman Marshall Harris, D-Miami, was often described as abrasive, abrupt and downright rude. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Harris demonstrated a very low tolerance for indifference, ineptness and, especially, apathy. Harris preferred spontaneous discussions with agency staff, as opposed to the slick, power-point briefings typically provided legislative hearings. His computer-like mind drew the nickname “Chairman 360,” after the then-state-of-art IBM 360 mainframe computer. Harris was a classic social liberal and fiscal conservative, so his supporters and opponents often changed during his term of service. I am proud to consider Harris to have been a mentor to my public service.
Pettigrew, Dubbin and Harris sensed their effective chemistry and often played the traditional “good cop- bad cop,” with Harris always playing the bad cop. They often sought support among the few Republican senators, due to the disdain with which the three House members were held by the administration of Senate President Jerry Thomas, D-Tequesta.
But, to be sure, the “Triumvirate of the Golden Age” — Speaker Dick Pettigrew, Rules Chairman Murray Dubbin and Appropriations Chairman Marshall Harris — as a team were most responsible for the extraordinary legislative achievements of the Askew years.
Robert W. McKnight served in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives from Miami during the “Golden Age of Florida Politics” in the 1970s and 1980s. He is an author and political commentator.