Cabinet caught in gray area on Confederate vets

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Could the Civil War be coming to the 2015 legislative session?

The War Between the States -- or, for the real Southern hardliners, the War of Northern Aggression -- emerged as an unlikely topic at a meeting of the Florida Cabinet on Thursday. The only potential fratricide that was supposed to take center stage during the annual meeting at the Florida State Fair was the battle between Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow Republicans on the Cabinet about agency leaders.

But then, near the end of the meeting, the seemingly mundane issue of approving the nominees for the Florida Veterans' Hall of Fame came up. Department of Veterans' Affairs Executive Director Mike Prendergast gave a brief explanation of how an advisory council submitted eight names for the class of 2014, and the department was recommending five of those.

Why the three were excluded became clear as David McCallister, with the Florida Division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, walked to the microphone with H.K. Edgerton, an African-American wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with, among other things, the Confederate battle flag.

"It would be a sad day when the Florida Cabinet is complicit in breaking Florida law," McCallister said.

The three excluded veterans all fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. They include former Gov. Edward Perry; David Lang, credited as the father of the Florida National Guard; and former U.S. Sen. Samuel Pasco, namesake of the Florida county. Under the interpretation of the law by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, only those discharged honorably from the United States Armed Forces are eligible for the hall -- meaning no Confederates and, as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam pointed out, no inductees from the pre-statehood militia.

"If you believe that it's important that no veteran be left behind, and that no veteran is a second-class citizen, then remember this about the message that you send with your vote today: How we treat the veterans of 150 years ago is how the veterans of today will be treated 150 years from now," McCallister said.

Putnam was not pleased with the department's handling of the issue.

"I think y'all screwed this up," said Putnam -- who then had to shush audience members who applauded him. "We don't need to re-litigate the Civil War or the War Between the States, whichever camp you come down on. ... There clearly have been people pre-statehood who made a difference in our state, there clearly were people who were part of the state's legal decision to secede who, at the conclusion of hostilities, rolled their sleeves up and helped make Florida what it has become today -- good, bad and ugly. So if you're throwing these guys out on a technicality, that's just dumb."

When Putnam floated the idea of approving the three Confederate nominees provisionally, while waiting for the Legislature to clarify whether the hall should include Johnny Rebs, a new problem emerged. Cabinet members had not been briefed on the bios of the three men.

"I didn't review the other three, because they weren't presented," Scott said.

Instead, the whole class (ironically including what would be the first African-American inductee to the relatively new hall) was put on hold so that the three could be more closely reviewed and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office can consult with lawyers at the veterans' agency on the meaning of the law.

In the meantime, it could fall to lawmakers to decide whether the soldiers who wore gray on the battlefield 150 years ago should be recognized alongside those who fought for the United States instead of against it.