Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew dies at 85

Askew led state through integration battles of the 1970s

Gov. Reubin Askew
Gov. Reubin Askew (AP photo by Mark Foley (file))

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Former Gov. Reubin Askew, a major figure in modern Florida political history, died early Thursday at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare. Askew was 85.

The former governor was admitted to the hospital Saturday with aspiration pneumonia, and his condition worsened when he suffered a stroke, family spokesman Ron Sachs said.

Askew, a Democrat, served as governor from 1971 to 1979, after a dozen years representing the Pensacola area in the Legislature. Askew defeated incumbent Republican Claude Kirk in 1970 and was re-elected in 1974, becoming the first governor in Florida history to be elected to successive terms.

When he first ran for governor, Askew was a relative unknown. But once in office, Askew led efforts to institute a corporate income tax, while reducing consumer taxes. He also spearheaded approval of what became known as the "Sunshine Amendment," which opened government records and required public officials to disclose information about their financial affairs.

In a 1998 interview with Florida State University's "Research in Review," Askew said he wanted to restore "some sense of responsibility and competence" in the governor's office.

"It sounds awfully corny for me to say this but my goal wasn't (simply) to get elected governor,'' Askew said during the interview. "My goal was to get elected in such a way as I could govern. There's a big difference. … So many people who run for office negotiate away all their options in the pursuit of the office and they literally tie their hands on dealing with the problems, by commitments."

Askew, an attorney, said the Sunshine Amendment stopped "a lot of circuitous business transactions in state and local government."

"Having to report your income is sort of an invasion of privacy and yet, I felt, while it was extraordinary, I felt that it was needed to give some sense of reassurance to the people (about their elected officials),'' he said during the 1998 interview. "Who are they working for? Are they working for themselves or for the people?"

Guy Spearman, who was a aid to Askew, said there was no question you knew where he stood.

"There was not ever a doubt as to what his position was," Spearman said.

After leaving office, Askew served as the U.S. trade representative from 1979 to 1981. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984. He later taught at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1951.

"Gov. Askew was one of the best examples of integrity in the public square," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "He believed that 'a public office is a public trust.'"

Gov. Rick Scott, who has ordered flags flown at half-staff at all local and state buildings until Askew's burial, issued a statement Thursday morning:
"Gov. Askew served our nation as a veteran, he served Florida's families as an elected officeholder, and he served our children as an educator. He helped lead Florida to enormous growth and was a trailblazer for good government. His advocacy for Florida's sunshine laws was a landmark moment for ethics and transparency in government, and that legacy continues to endure."

The former governor is survived by his wife of 57 years, Donna Lou; a son, Kevin Askew; a daughter, Angela White; and several grandchildren.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist also issued a statement:
"Gov. Askew opened up government to the people, allowing our state to be progressive on critical issues like civil rights, education, and ethics. He was a public servant, a teacher of students, and now a lesson of hope and progress forever sketched into the history of our beautiful state. Carole and I send our thoughts and prayers to Donna Lou, Kevin, and Angela."

Former Gov. Bob Martinez also sent remarks honoring Askew:
"Gov. Askew was an outstanding  person, public official and friend.  His leadership in ethics reform, environment and bringing Floridians of all color, ethnicity and gender together is a legacy to be admired.  On a personal note, he got me started in public life when he appointment me to the Southwest Water Management District in 1975.  Over the years we had the opportunity to talk at various Tallahassee events and I had the privilege to lecture several times  to students taking his class.  He will be missed by family and friends. God bless."

Askew will lie in state at the Old Capitol building, which ironically he once wanted torn down. He later admitted he was wrong.  The times and other arrangements are still being finalized, but he will be buried in Pensacola.