The ’78 Senate Debate at Miami's Tiger Bay Club
Around the State
In 1978, there was only one Tiger Bay Club -- the original at the famed DuPont Plaza Hotel on the mouth of the Miami River.
The qualifying for the legislative elections had just been completed and I found myself running in the Democratic Primary primarily against incumbent Sen. Ralph Poston, D-Miami, for the District 38 seat covering South Dade and Monroe counties.
I was a two-term member of the Florida House of Representatives who had filed to run for the Senate after Poston had told me he was retiring. However, at the time he told me he was not running for re-election, he hadn't then been reprimanded by his colleagues in the Senate for unethical behavior, culminating in a public trial covering several months in early 1978.
The race for Senate District 38 became of national interest because of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Florida had missed ratifying the federal constitutional amendment by one vote in the Senate, and Poston, a co-sponsor of it, changed his vote to “no.” It could be argued that Poston was the deciding vote that killed the ERA.
In the House, I had expressed support for adopting the ERA, so the Senate race took on even bigger ramifications. Unsolicited, I found support -- financial and otherwise from media luminaries like feminist Gloria Steinem, actor Alan Alda, actress Valarie Harper, and philanthropist Steward Mott -- all vehement supporters of the ERA. For the first time in the history of Tiger Bay, a live television feed was used to cover the debate.
There was even a third factor in the campaign, and the public did not know of it until the debate. Over a year before the debate, my wife Susan and I lost a baby before birth. Just before the debate, we had the blessing of a safe delivery with the birth of our son, our second child. But, because of the earlier loss, we had a heightened concern about the delivery of our son.
At the time of the scheduled delivery, a special session of the Legislature was called on automobile insurance reform. I spoke to the speaker of the House about the special session and he assured me that my vote would not be needed and he felt that I really needed to be with Susan at home at that time. I explained the situation to my colleagues, and it turned out the speaker was right -- the required legislation passed handily.
At the start of the debate I noticed a brochure on Sen. Poston’s re-election. It said that his opponent -- me -- did not have the integrity to vote at times, making special reference to the special session on automobile insurance. When he started speaking at the debate, he said the same thing only in a harsh tone. I was seething.
When I was asked to respond to the senator’s attack, I stuck my finger in his face and said, “Senator, at the time to which you make reference, I was at my wife’s side helping with the delivery of our son, and if it happened again, I would do the same thing again.” The noise from the evenly split overflow crowd was riveting, with the Poston, pro-family crowd, cheering the loudest.
I overheard one reporter to the side of the podium say, “Well, looks like the Senate District 38 race is over…”
That reporter turned out to be right, although with the Democratic nomination in hand, I did have to take on a second senator in the general election. Former Sen. Don Gruber, R-Coconut Grove, had filed to run for District 38 thinking Poston and I would destroy each other, opening the door for him.
Apparently the state Republican Party did not agree, as then-Senate Minority Leader Ken Plante, R-Orlando, told me he was not sending any party funds to Gruber. The final election was not close. I took the District 38 seat in the Florida Senate in November 1978.
Robert W. McKnight served in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives during the 1970s and 1980s. He has written two books on Florida politics, available at Amazon.com; and now provides regular political commentary trademarked as “The Golden Age Quorum Call” in the Tallahassee Democrat and Facing Florida, a public affairs television program airing on ABC, CBS and FOX stations. He can be reached at email@example.com.