Former Democratic Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, who supported Anita Bryant’s campaign to ban gay schoolteachers and who in 1977 signed Florida’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage and gay adoption, has died of pneumonia at the age 85. Despite his opposition to LGBT rights and his other conservative positions, the New York Times today hails Askew as a progressive for his time.
Along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Mr. Askew was part of a new wave of moderate Southern governors in the 1970s and ‘80s who embraced progressive ideas on racial issues, the environment, education, crime, taxation and economic growth. He was all but unknown outside his conservative panhandle constituency when he ran for governor in 1970, although he had served 12 years in the State Legislature. But he was tall, lean and telegenic — and he promised to tax corporate profits. He caught fire with voters who saw him approvingly as a populist tilting against big business, and he defeated the incumbent Republican, Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr., handily. In his first term, Mr. Askew pushed through a 5 percent corporate income tax, and eased consumer, property and school taxes: minor miracles in a revenue-starved, anti-tax state. He also reformed penal statutes, streamlined the judiciary, achieved no-fault divorce and auto insurance laws, raised welfare benefits and extended workers’ compensation to migrant laborers. While the Legislature resisted his ideas for education reforms and for a consumer advocate, the governor protected environmentally fragile lands, restricted coastal construction and blocked oceanfront casinos. He also began to integrate state government, starting with the Highway Patrol. He named blacks to state commissions and boards, and supported proposals to bus children to desegregate public schools.
Askew ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 on a platform that included opposition to abortion rights and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. He withdrew early in the primary season after finishing last in New Hampshire. His 1988 bid for the US Senate suffered a similar fate.
RELATED: Askew’s eight years as Florida governor began while I was in middle school and ended a couple of years after I came out. In a way, it was Askew’s support for Anita Bryant that first fueled my interest in LGBT rights and politics.