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Thursday, Nov 15, 2018
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The Man Who Would Be Governor

He was a politician's politician before those words ceased being a compliment. He was a populist before that word was appropriated by millionaires running for president. His highs were higher and his lows lower than just about any Floridian to run for public office. His name was Scott Kelly. Sadly, it is largely unknown to most students of Florida politics. Were it not for the fateful hand of Dade County, Kelly might well be remembered as the politician who saved the Florida Democratic Party when it was self-destructing. He is the subject of a new biography by former Tampa Tribune reporter Dorothy Weik Smiljanich. "Then Sings My Soul: The Scott Kelly Story" (Florida Historical Society Press, $17.95) is a study of the transformation of Florida from a sparsely settled rural state to a Sun Belt megastate. Published by the Florida Historical Society, the book is a compelling read, particularly for those who want to understand modern Florida. Smiljanich's research included meetings with Kelly, who died in 2005.
Born in Madison County in 1927, Sherrod Scott Kelly and his family moved to Gadsden County in the Panhandle when he was a young boy. His roots and values sank deep in the red hills country, where some of America's finest shade tobacco was grown. Kelly's father worked as superintendent for a large tobacco conglomerate at Magnolia Farm. Gadsden County's population was then largely black (it remains Florida's only black-majority county). The relationships formed as Kelly was growing up would blossom into a politician's remarkable rapport with rural folk and blacks. A strapping 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he was a star fullback at Gadsden County High School and briefly played at the University of Florida before a short stint in the military. Kelly remained a Bull Gator the rest of his life and, in a rapidly changing Florida, the Gators were a constant source of satisfaction and devotion. In postwar Quincy, the teenager who had already tasted college and the military began his business career. His business instincts were almost always flawless. But it was not so much his choice of professions as it was his work ethic and personality that forged success after success. He sold life insurance, ran taverns and restaurants and built homes.
And ran for political office. Imperial Polk County In 1949, he moved his family to Lakeland, where his older brother Clifton Marvin practiced law. That brother would eventually become a distinguished chief circuit judge, and their sister, Anne Estelle, would become chairwoman of the Political Science Department at the University of South Florida in Tampa. After a brief career as a bail bondsman, Kelly went into the home-construction business. In 1949, hundreds of veterans and their families streamed weekly into Florida eager to seize the Florida Dream. Polk County had already carved a legendary reputation as the cradle of Florida governors. Natives Park Trammell and Spessard Holland each served as governor and U.S. senator, never losing an election. A third Polk County resident would duplicate that feat. In the 1950s, political insiders would have bet the house that Scott Kelly would burnish imperial Polk County's record. Instead, that achievement would await Lawton Chiles. In 1953, urged by George Jenkins, founder of Publix supermarkets, Kelly won his first contest. Elected to the Lakeland City Commission, he fought to secure federal funds to build Lakeland General Hospital. In Smiljanich's words, voters wondered, "Was he a Southern conservative or a progressive Democrat?" He became Lakeland's youngest mayor in 1954 and was re-elected in 1955. He had already decided to someday run for governor.
Tribune reporter Tom Raker profiled the ambitious politician in 1956.

"Scott Kelly is unknown outside Polk County, for the most part," he wrote. "He's a hand-shaking, door-knocking, grassroots politico from the old-time mold." Kelly measured his next opponent carefully. In 1956, he opposed powerful Florida Sen. Harry King and scored an upset. The Statehouse Sen. Kelly easily made friends in Tallahassee. Although the state was rapidly changing, the complexion and character of the Senate resisted it. Kelly befriended both the Pork Choppers (rural legislators) and Lamb Choppers (urban representatives). He earned a reputation as a reformer when the 1959 Legislature tackled the sensational issue of corruption involving the state road department. For years, construction companies such as Cone Bros. in Tampa had secured lucrative state contracts without adequate oversight. Kelly emerged from the hearings as a white knight, although not all politicians approved his zeal. The constellations were aligned for Kelly's quest to become governor in 1964. Other candidates included four-time Jacksonville mayor Haydon Burns; Robert King High, the popular mayor of Miami; and Fred Karl of Daytona Beach, a progressive legislator. Kelly persuaded Larry Libertore, a Gators football legend, to help with the campaign. He hired the Rebel Quartet to warm up the crowds with gospel tunes. Once, as the candidate approached the crowd in a white Cadillac convertible, one of the singers announced, "Great Scott! It's Kelly!" Campaigning in 1964 Florida also involved speaking from the backs of flatbed trucks and attending Rotarian lunches. A whirlwind on the stump, Kelly was notoriously late for appearances. When the votes poured in, he believed he would finish second and defeat Burns in the runoff. But last-minute returns from South Florida pushed High ahead by a few thousand votes. Kelly had taken 28 of the state's 67 counties, but he miscalculated the sheer weight of South Florida. Burns was elected governor, but he neither understood nor approved of the social and cultural changes sweeping the United States. Florida's Democratic Party was imploding as social conservatives and liberals fought for control. Ironically, the party needed someone like Kelly, who could talk across the aisle and pulpit to friends and foes. Kelly was sure he could defeat Burns in 1966, but again, Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties voted for their favorite son, High. Kelly lost his chance at a runoff by 6,701 votes. High lost the general election to Republican Claude Kirk. About The Author Born in 1947 in Camden, N.J., Smiljanich and her family moved to Gainesville in 1949, when her father took advantage of the GI Bill to attend UF. The family eventually returned to the Northeast, only to come back to Florida in 1956.
She grew up in Clearwater, "when it was still a small town," and lives there with her husband, Terry, a Tampa lawyer.
She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in English at UF and began her career at the Gainesville Sun. Her 25 years in journalism included positions at the Clearwater Sun, St. Petersburg Times and the Tribune, where she was a theater critic and travel editor.
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