MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to remember the life of a man who expanded the American political landscape in ways that are still felt today. Former Florida governor Reubin Askew died recently at the age of 85. He was a Democrat who served as governor in a largely conservative Florida in the 1970s. While in that office, he took a progressive stance on racial equality and pushed through legislation to overhaul ethics and taxes.
He went on to serve as a U.S. trade representative in the administration of another progressive Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter. We wanted to learn more about his life so we've called Ken Rudin. He is the host of the "Political Junkie" radio show on PRX. Ken, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
KEN RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: What was he like?
RUDIN: Well, I met him in 1984 when he was running for president. I met him in New Hampshire and even then apparently he was exactly the way he was when he was governor - he was unassuming, he was kind of an aw-shucks guy, he wasn't the kind of guy who would want attention to himself. But he believed in his ideas about economic fairness and racial equality, and he wanted to talk about that.
But of course, he did awful in New Hampshire in 1984 - finished ninth place, in last place and droped out of the race. But even then you just see why people in Florida loved him so much. He was just a good guy, an unassuming guy who just wanted to do the right things.
MARTIN: You know, you look at the legacy he left - he appointed the first black justice of the Florida Supreme Court, he raised welfare benefits, he appointed the first black person since Reconstruction to head of State Agency. And on the tax side, as you, you know, mentioned, he pushed through a 5 percent corporate profits tax, he eased consumer property and school taxes. I mean, some people just see these all as minor miracles given the political landscape of the time. How did he do all that?
RUDIN: Well, what's remarkable - and not only did he raise the taxes and raise corporate taxes, but he campaigned on that theme when he first ran for governor in 1970. That was his campaign on tax fairness, on the fact that corporations are just making obscene profits. That sounds like something that, you know, is a left-wing fantasy campaign, but he ran on it.
First of all, he had the good fortune of running against the old boys in the Democratic primary, and had the good fortune of running against a very erratic Republican governor, Claude Kirk, in the general election. But, again, he would never talk nasty about any other candidate, he just talked about the issues. And even though he was quiet and sometimes aloof and reserved, he was a leader and Florida voters twice rewarded him with his leadership by electing him overwhelming.
MARTIN: One of my favorite stories about him - even though I never got a chance to meet him - was in his 1970 gubernatorial race his opponent, commenting on the fact that he didn't drink, smoke or swear, called him a mama's boy. And he apparently solemnly replied to this - I love my Momma. And I just wanted to ask you - talk to me a little bit about that. Did his personal rectitude inform his politics? I'm just so curious about how - all that.
RUDIN: Well, let me go back to - another story. This is Pensacola, 1958 - this is closer to the Brown versus Board of Education decision - campaigning for the statehouse for the first time, and a heckler yells out to him you're an N-lover. And Askew takes him aside and says, look, the trouble is I don't love them enough, the difference between you and me is I'm trying to overcome my prejudices and you're not. This is Pensacola, in the Panhandle - Reubin Askew was not a showman on race or anything like that, he just wanted to do the right thing and it just came from his interfaith.
MARTIN: How would you want him to be remembered?
RUDIN: Well, look at what the South was like in 1970 - the governor of Georgia was Lester Maddox, in Arkansas, Orval Faubus was seeking a comeback. I mean, they were really - the old redneck Democratic regime was ruling in the South. And then you had Jimmy Carter elected in Georgia, you had Dale Bumpers elected in Arkansas and you have Reubin Askew elected in Florida. He helped move Florida into the 20th century - of course this is a bit late, this was 1970 - and he had this decency and leadership that Harvard University decided to rate him as 1 of the 10 greatest governors of the century.
MARTIN: Ken Rudin is host of "Political Junkie" on PRX. And he was kind enough to join us from his home office in Maryland. Ken, thanks so much for joining us.
RUDIN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.