When Republicans Weren’t So Radical: Part 1, The Kirk Years

As we have referenced to many times on this website, Florida’s Republicans were for a long period of time more moderate and more reasonable than other southern Republicans. Unlike other southern states where the GOP became simply a refuge for disaffected conservative Democrats after the Civil Rights era and other social upheavals of the 1960s, Florida’s GOP was more grounded in the politics of the Midwest where many of the state’s Republicans had originated.

Florida Republicans often times were better on Environmental issues, Government reform, and progressive building of infrastructure in urban areas than many of their Democratic counterparts.

With this we give you part one, the Kirk years, after the jump.

Claude Kirk was the first Republican to win a major statewide election in Florida since Reconstruction. However, his election was just the continuation of trends which saw Kirk’s rival William Cramer claim a St. Petersburg based congressional seat and the central Florida ascendance of Ed Gurney, Lou Frey and other Republicans.

Kirk shocked political observers by tapping into widespread discontent with the liberal direction of the national Democratic Party with his huge 1966 gubernatorial upset win. Anger about the 1964 Civil Rights Act was still prevalent and after Robert King High, a Miami liberal who supported Civil Rights upset incumbent Governor Haydon Burns in the primary, the die was cast. Kirk, running without a party infrastructure, routed High in the general election. He gained the support of many Democratic elected officials and swept in many Republican legislators with him. Republicans which had already come to prominence in Pinellas, Orange, Broward and Palm Beach counties now were a statewide force.

Kirk’s victory coincided with constitutional revisions and reapportionment of the Legislature. The new, more urbane and bi-partisan legislature worked with Kirk when his eccentric personality and penchant for self-promotion and self-destruction didn’t get in the way.

Despite tapping into voter anger and running as a clear cultural, crime and racial conservative, Kirk showed a progressive streak on many issues. His ascendency to the Governorship coincided with the end of rural, conservative Democratic “Pork Chop Gang” rule of the Legislature.

Human services got a boost under Kirk working with legislators pushing programs and funding which had gotten nowhere under Burns, Farris Bryant and the pork-choppers in the Senate. Funding on education and urban road building was increased measurably under Kirk, but most important was the GOP contribution to environmental protection.

Kirk appointed Nathaniel Reed from Martin County as one of his chief advisers. Reed who was one of the men who deserves credit for building the Florida GOP, is theĀ  arguably greatest environmentalist in the state’s history. Reed was a classic northeastern progressive Republican whose family spent half a year in southeast Florida when he was growing up. Reed however, always considered himself a Floridian and his impact on the state’s history is immeasurable. Reed is perhaps the Floridian most responsible for the positive changes in preserving this state’s unique ecosystem than anyone else. This came after years of rural Democrats exploiting Florida’s natural resources and putting Florida’s natural beauty at risk.

Reed help push Kirk into embracing the development of Biscayne National Park, cleaning up the St Johns River, abandonment of the Everglades Jetport (which is chronicled in Michael Grunwald’s classic work “The Swamp” ) and the cancelling of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

Reed is a legend among reasonable, traditional Florida Republicans. He served in the Nixon and Ford Administrations and was close with George H.W. Bush. Reed’s impact in the Nixon and Ford years was tremendous, and he is largely responsible for much of the progress made nationally on environmental issues in the 1970s. But he was uncomfortable with the rightward drift of the GOP that came after 1980. In 2004, he told the St. Pete Times: “I’m damned if the Republican National Committee will ever see a dime from me as long as it’s in the hands of the Christian Right.” In the same interview he also attacked Dick Cheney saying “While I was in the Ford administration, Cheney tried to block every good environmental policy, every decent piece of environmental legislation.”

Kirk backed liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller for President in 1968 but Richard Nixon was nominated and became President. Kirk, more eccentric and buffoonish than ever lost re-election to Reuben Askew of whom Kirk once said “he’s from Pensacola, that’s Alabama!” Askew would of course go on to be one of the greatest governors in the history of the southern states.

Kirk flipped back and forth between Republican and Democrat in the 1970s and 1980s, running statewide in both parties. In 1994, he strongly endorsed Democrat Lawton Chiles who was in a tight reelection fight with Jeb Bush. In assessing Kirk he was neither conservative nor liberal but a true populist with a streak for demagoguery and buffoonery. Regardless of your views of the man, no question Florida made progress in his time, as he restored independence to the Governor’s Mansion that had been lost after the great Leroy Collins left office in 1961. He also pushed progressive initiatives in areas where today’s GOP would brand him a “socialist” and a “radical.”

Kirk died last year in Palm Beach County, aged 85.

8 thoughts on “When Republicans Weren’t So Radical: Part 1, The Kirk Years”

  1. Reed is actually credited with being one of those who fought to protect the bald eagle. He had a huge impact nationally as well as locally.

  2. You just don’t get it do you? Kirk was a nut as you mention but the radicalism of people like Reed around him were big reasons why the Democrats dominated the 1970s. Republicans were tree huggers and out of step with a rapidly developing state. Our Democrats were business friendly, and avoided divisive social issues. Askew and Graham were both too liberal for my tastes but they worked through the system and did not force radical change on a state where agriculture, development and southern heritage is important. Kirk was a southerner and played the race card well but clearly aligned with left wing northerners like Rockefeller and Reed. By contrast Askew and Graham stayed loyal to Carter instead of Kennedy or other northern liberals and Chiles was supportive of Clinton. It is today’s Democrats supporting the likes of Kerry and Obama who have destroyed the heritage of our party. Kirk and Reed destroyed the state in many ways. The Cross Florida Barge Canal was needed and the idiotic decision to abandon the Everglades Jetport curtailed economic development and further congested Miami and Fort Lauderdale’s international airports. The new Constitution advocated by Kirk discriminated against rural areas of the state and shifted power away from those who had served the state so well. He was a disaster in every way.

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