Early Democratic dominance: A Sea Change in Florida Politics
SARASOTA, Fla. (SNN TV) - Florida used to be a reliably Democratic state. So what exactly happened where Republicans control all the levers of power?
In the first installment of our new series, "Red, Purple, & Blue: A Sea Change in Florida Politics," we begin to answer that question.
To understand where Florida is now politically, we need to go back to when the population boom began – after World War II. “From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans” talks of how many WWII soldiers stationed in Florida really liked the state and wrote to family about it – it’s easy when you have beaches and sunshine and palm trees year-round.
Most new arrivals after WWII settled between Palm Beach and Miami Dade County using the Flagler railroad line or Highway U.S. 1. A smaller but sizable number followed the U.S. 19 and 27 or the Midwest rail lines to go to Tampa.
Most seniors at the time voted Democratic, but Midwesterners in Tampa Bay, St. Pete and Sarasota were “instrumental” in launching the Republican Party in Florida in the 1950s.
New Deal Democrats who moved here found the state Democratic Party to be different than theirs. They embraced civil rights and the right of labor to organize, while homegrown Democrats were much more conservative and opposed civil rights laws. In fact, many of the New Deal Democrats moved to South Florida, so the more north you drove from there, the more southern it felt.
Democrats in north Florida had most of the power. They were called Porkchoppers, who were a group of Democrats in the state legislature who teamed to maintain segregation and keep control of their power. They targeted homosexuals in state universities, which led to dozens of professors and deans losing their jobs.
During this time, you also had Cuban Floridians’ reactions to John F. Kennedy’s presidency. He refused to call in air strikes during the Bay of Pigs.
Many Midwestern Republicans were more similar to native Democrats – limited government, low taxes, and “family values.” But those native Democrats did not vote Republican. They were called Yellow Dog Democrats – they’d rather vote for an ugly yellow dog than a Republican. Blue Dog Democrats also occupied seats in Florida's legislature; they were “choked blue” by national Democrats’ more involved view of government.
In the mid-20th century, Democrats dominated Florida politics. It was Governor W. Haydon Burns, a Democrat, who sat by Walt Disney as they announced what would become Disney World. At that time, the public just knew it would be like Disney Land, though you started to see the signs.
“I’ve always said there will never be another Disneyland, governor, and I think it’s going to work out this way. But it will be the equivalent of Disneyland," Walt Disney said in a news conference with then-Governor Burns.
“We’ve been using the term Disney World to encompass all of our activities. Now what we’ll call this [new theme park] here, we haven’t gotten into that. That takes a little study," Disney said.
With Democrats in firm control, the 1966 election was considered an upset when Republican Claude Kirk Jr. defeated Democrat Robert High. High was viewed as an “ultraliberal,” which at that point was synonymous with supporting President LBJ’s federal civil and voting rights laws.
This was an early crack in Florida Democrats’ power – “From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans” cites a quote from a 70-year-old Democratic woman who had never voted Republican up to that point: “The name [Republican] offends my sensibilities but actually in some ways it is more like the old Democratic Party I once believed in.”
Kirk defeated High by more than 10 points in the state, and with the cities at the time being the source of Republican power, redistricting helped them win seats in the state legislature. They were still a minority, but they went from 10 seats to 39 in the Florida House and 2 seats to 20 in the Florida Senate.
To say his term was controversial is an understatement. His wife said in 1967 that he drank excessively and had “indiscreet public associations with other women.” He debuted “Madame X” at his inauguration – she was a German-born actress named Erika Mattfeld. They married on Feb. 18, 1967. He used a personal investigative agency to combat organized crime in Miami instead of the State Bureau of Investigation.
But one of the biggest controversies took place on the Suncoast in Manatee County in the final year of his first term. A U.S. District Judge ordered Manatee County schools to desegregate by April of 1970. The school district would do so by busing students to achieve an 80-20 white-black ratio.
Kirk interceded to block that decision.
He suspended the superintendent of schools and also suspended and took control of the School Board. He thought opposing busing would help his reelection and increase his chance of becoming vice president to Richard Nixon in 1972.
Democrat Reubin Askew ran against Kirk in 1970. Unlike Kirk, Askew ran on racial justice, environmental stewardship, corporate responsibility, transparency in government, and a strong public education system.
He was more progressive than his opponents, but the more conservative north Florida Democrats liked Askew. He was also from North Florida. They felt he was “one of them.” In the election, Askew steamrolled Kirk with nearly 57 percent of the vote, losing only Orange and Sarasota Counties among urban counties.
During his first year in office, he helped gain passage of Florida’s first corporate income tax and touted the environment and good government. He supported the civil rights movement. But his policies didn't sit well with some Democrats.
On the next episode of "Red, Purple and Blue: A Sea Change in Florida Politics,"
We’ll look at the Democrat turned Republican who would run against Askew, the governor who did every job imaginable, including reffing football games and picking produce, and the rough election that nearly began decades of Republican control of the governor's mansion.
The next episode will air on Sunday, Sept. 24, at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m