Book Review: From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans.

For those of you that might be new to Florida politics or don’t know much of this history behind it, this is the perfect book to get you up to speed. Kartik and I talk about Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and others with ease, yet many new Floridians might not know what we are going on about.

In historian David Colburn’s book From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans, Colburn explains the transition from Florida being a traditional Dixiecrat state to being solid Republican on the state level.

As for the historical aspect of the book, it is something that I highly recommend for followers of Florida politics. For those that moved here after the election of Jeb Bush, this book will let you know why more seasoned Florida Democrats have such strong feelings for Leroy Collins, Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham. He really does a good job of stressing their accomplishments. In addition, he explained that these Democrats won while sticking to core liberal values. The days of conservative Yellow Dog Florida Democrats ended with Haydon Burns, even though he eventually had to change with the times to lure Disney to Florida. And if you don’t know who Governor Burns is, another good reason to read this book.

As far as the political analysis of the book, he gives mixed insight. When looking at past elections, he does a great job explaining the coalitions that both parties were able to forge in order to win, or lose, elections. But when doing the issue analysis, Colburn mostly centers on two issues, race and taxes. He seems to contend that race was the biggest issue in Florida politics until the election of Reubin Askew, which entirely changed that. This, I agree, is a correct assumption.

But in post-1970s election, especially from 1990 until today, he concentrates on taxes as the main driving force behind the issues, and rarely talks about social issues, education or crime. Yes, he does mention them, but not as strongly as the tax issue.

For example, when discussing the 1990 election for Florida governor, his thesis regarding the defeat of Bob Martinez solely hangs on the unpopularity of the service tax. Yet during his entire discussion, he fails to even talk about the gun laws that were being signed into law by Martinez. To explain this more, let’s take a look at my family. We moved to Florida three years prior to this election. Since we were from Illinois, we were used to taxes and we really didn’t care about the services taxes. We were just happy that we no longer had to pay state income tax. Therefore, we would just take the service tax and be happy.

On the other hand, my parent weren’t prepared to walk into the Lake Mary Publix and see a sign that said “please do not enter with your firearm.” The idea of a firearm being allowed in Publix, as well as the concealed weapon law in general, was a culture shock for many northerners who were voting in their first Florida gubernatorial election. This was a driving force in the election, especially for the new voters. Coming from places of high crime, they weren’t prepared to live in a “wild west” type of atmosphere. The fact that Colburn didn’t address this, I feel, makes his argument that only the service tax cost Martinez the election. Hell, even moderate Bill Nelson campaigned for tougher gun control laws in the same election…which is the sole reason my parents voted for Nelson over Chiles in the Democratic primary.

The fact that Colburn talks about taxes as much as he does, and rarely talks about liberal social issues, give me the impression that Colburn feels that Democrats need to be more moderate. He said that on all levels, when Republicans label Democrats as “liberals”, that they lose. He claims this is the main reason Charlie Crist won over Jim Davis. Colburn seems to hint that since Alex Sink won the race for CFO in the same elections, that a moderate, pro-business Democrat could possibly win. He didn’t say it, but he implied it.

Even with these claims, the book is already outdated, even though it was released just five years ago. Since then, liberal presidential candidate Barack Obama won the state. In addition, Alex Sink, the model candidate for, what I like to call “traditional institutional Democrats”, lost to Rick Scott, a candidate that didn’t pick up one major newspaper endorsement.

In addition to some of these errors, Colburn did make some smaller errors. For example, he said that high school students from the Pine Hills area of Orlando went to Jones High School. In fact, most of the student from this area are split between Jones and Evans High School. I would contend that more actually attend Evans than Jones. But this is a small issue, and the book shouldn’t be held in a bad light over small errors like this.

I would highly recommend this book for the historical aspect of Florida politics, especially when understanding the political history between the 1950s up to the 1986 election. After that, I feel that his conclusion are sketchy at best and he only uses data to support his own thesis and doesn’t look at the whole picture. So, when reading this book, only look at it as a historical transcript, not a deep-thought political analysis of Florida politics.

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