The 90s blue mirage: A Sea Change in Florida Politics
SARASOTA, Fla. (SNN TV) - Crime and the death penalty dominated the 1986 gubernatorial election in Florida, but one topic would derail the new governor's political career.
In part three of “Red Purple and Blue: A Sea Change in Florida Politics,” we're going back to the late 80s and early 90s, and look at a future presidential candidate making a splash in the Sunshine State.
In the 1988 presidential election, Republican Vice President George H. W. Bush attacked his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, for vetoing a bill that would have eliminated a furlough program in Massachusetts prisons.
“His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole," a man narrated in a George H. W. Bush campaign ad.
But it was an ad by an independent group that referenced one man, William Horton, who became much talked about during the campaign.
“Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison," a narrator said in the ad. "One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.”
That was in 1988, but two years prior in 1986, attacks about liberalism and crime worked.
Martinez attacked his Democratic opponent for being opposed to the death penalty and being a liberal, similar attacks to what would occur two years later.
In the election, he destroyed the Democrats’ South Florida coalition, winning Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, and also rallied the Republican base in southwest Florida. Cubans heavily supported Martinez, especially after siding so heavily with Reagan over Carter in 1980.
During his term, Martinez conserved more than 380,000 acres of land to preserve water resources, strengthened Florida’s ties with business and corporate interests, and attracted middle-class voters with his statewide anticrime, antidrug campaign. But he’s most known for what was the death of his political career – the service tax.
Florida depended on sales tax for 3/4s of its revenue. That didn’t generate enough for roads, family services, crime, education, and the environment. The economy also slowed in the late 1980s, so a consumption tax at a time of less consumption didn’t do much. State programs such as Medicaid skyrocketed as more seniors moved to the state, more money was needed for prisons, and more money was needed for the education of new Floridians.
A bipartisan commission was appointed to implement a service tax when Martinez was inaugurated. The service sector had expanded considerably, so it was implemented. But the same year in September 1987, he said he made a mistake and supported its repeal.
In short, he supported something unpopular, then he changed his position quickly. Now you fast-forward to 1990, and Martinez is vulnerable. Lawton Chiles would eventually be his Democratic opponent. Before that, he ran for U.S. Senate in 1970. His son, Ed Chiles, remembers talking with the governor before his first campaign.
“He sat down my brother and I. Neither one of us will ever forget this discussion," Ed Chiles said. "He said, 'I’m gonna do a $10 donation for my campaign.’ A sawbuck. And we were always very, very active in the campaigns, and we knew what that meant in terms of how are you going to fund a campaign. It was one of those great things because if you gave him 10 bucks, you had skin in the game. You know, he was your guy.”
He became popular by crisscrossing the state -- on foot.
"And walked from the northwest tip of Florida all the way down to the Keys," Ed said.
His nickname? Walkin’ Lawton.
He won in 1970, and then won reelection for U.S Senate twice. Despite health issues, taking Prozac for depression, and his age, he was asked to run for governor in 1990 against Martinez.
“He had been in government for 30-something years at that point in time. When he ran for governor, he knew the state intimately," his son said.
And he won easily against Governor Martinez.
But Republicans won seats in the legislature and finally had split control over the state Senate. So despite another Democratic win of the governor’s mansion, Republicans expanded in the state legislature. It’s likely, even by Martinez’s admission, that the 1990 election wasn’t a story of Democratic dominance – it was a story about the service tax. So Chiles, unlike Askew and Graham, had to work with a split legislature.
“He was a populist. I think he was very concerned about the tax base and evening that up. That was something where he had some successes but never got the full thing he was looking for," Ed Chiles remembers.
Chiles came into a recession, then had to deal with the destruction from Hurricane Andrew, and it was a difficult first term with a split legislature. However, he extracted as much as he could from them.
“His biggest goal was health care to try to provide more access. That was something where he had real successes with the community health care purchasing alliances," Ed Chiles said. "He just knew after his 30 years in public office that there was no more important place to spend a dollar than to making sure that moms were healthy and babies were born healthy because that's a generational thing if it goes wrong."
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush moved from Texas to Miami-Dade County in the 1980s. He served briefly as a Republican as Florida’s Secretary of Commerce in the 1980s before serving on his father’s – George H. W. Bush’s – campaign in 1988. Bush ran for governor as a Republican in 1994 and promised to “dismantle the welfare state.”
Chiles was vulnerable. By the 1990s, 2/3s of state voters weren’t born here and weren’t familiar with Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles’ political history. And Bush was a good communicator in a debate setting.
"My [business] partner and I built a business from the ground up [with] three people," Bush said to Chiles in a debate. "Today, that business has 160 people. Unlike government that kind of just grows and grows and grows, we had ups and down. The real world is that way." He then turned to Chiles and said, "You haven't been in the real world... to know what it's like."
This young newcomer would give Chiles the election campaign of his life.
Republican Jeb Bush hit Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles hard in 1994, calling Chiles an ultra liberal, and weak on crime. But Bush made a few key mistakes, while his opponent delivered a line still remembered in Tallahassee that left Bush befuddled, not knowing the message it sent to part of Florida.
On next week's episode of “Red Purple and Blue: A Sea Change in Florida Politics," we’ll cover the 1994 governor’s race in Florida from Chiles' son, Ed. The 12-part series airs every Sunday at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on SNN.