Few Tallahassee veterans thought Reubin Askew had the grit for the job when he was elected governor in 1970.
The soft-spoken, tee-totaling family man — derided as “Reubin Who” during the campaign and later as “Mr. Clean” — was neither combative nor histrionic. When serving as a Pensacola state senator, he didn’t join colleagues for after-hours drinks or weekend hunts.
But the reserved, stately Askew had a surprise for the powerful special interests who dominated Tallahassee and thought they would quickly cow the Presbyterian elder.
As governor, Askew demonstrated an indomitable will and remarkable courage.
Askew, who died early Thursday at age 85, governed with a principled independence that made him one of Florida’s greatest governors and set an example of leadership that we wish more state officials would emulate.
Like his mentor, Gov. LeRoy Collins, Askew didn’t worry about polls or political consequences. He wasn’t afraid to tell voters what they didn’t want to hear. He simply stood for what he believed.
Consider Askew’s handling of the forced school busing mandated by Washington to achieve integration. It was wildly unpopular, and lawmakers, seeking to capitalize on the public’s resentment, put a busing ban referendum on the ballot.
Askew, in contrast, tried to defuse racial tensions. He persuaded lawmakers to also approve a ballot measure favoring equal education for all. Then he vigorously campaigned for it and against the busing ban. The anti-busing measure passed by an overwhelming margin in 1972, but so did the conflicting measure advocating education equality.
The symbolic ballot victory anti-busing forces had hoped to achieve was rendered hollow. And most Floridians ended up admiring Askew’s courage.
This was hardly an isolated case.
Askew incurred the wrath of business leaders by calling for a corporate income tax to improve state finances. But he persevered, and voters overwhelmingly supported the tax in a referendum.
He orchestrated the adoption of a series of “Sunshine laws” empowering citizens to see what their elected officials were doing.
In a high-growth state that had showed little regard for its natural assets, Askew successfully pushed for environmental safeguards.
Though prejudice remained prevalent, Askew appointed the South’s first black Supreme Court justice and appointed blacks and women to office.
He recognized, as today’s lawmakers should, legalized gambling’s threat to the state’s commerce and integrity and led a successful campaign against it.
Best known as a reformer, Askew appreciated the vital importance of a strong economy. He promoted international trade and sought to make Florida a place business leaders would want to live and work. He would later serve as a trade ambassador for President Jimmy Carter.
Askew’s thoughtful brand of leadership surely would be difficult if not impossible in this time of hyperpartisanship and nonstop political shows and blogs more interested in stimulating anger than thought.
But Askew’s indifference to political fallout was an anomaly even in his day.
It is telling that he ended his last campaign — for the U.S. Senate — because he was disgusted by the need to endlessly appeal for campaign contributions.
He wanted nothing to compromise his service to the people.
Despite his independence and controversial stands, Gov. Reubin Askew left office as popular as ever, with Florida greatly improved on almost all fronts.
His comments to a Tribune reporter in 1978 should serve as counsel to all elected officials:
“I guess the greatest satisfaction that I have ... is ... I was not committed to anyone except as a single constituent.
“I was free to act in the best interest of the people, and I tried my best to do so.”