Columns

The Attack on Entebbe … Not in Uganda, in the Florida Legislature

By: Robert W. McKnight | Posted: July 24, 2014 3:55 AM
Robert W. McKnight

Robert W. McKnight

The campaign for speaker of the Florida House of Representatives for the 1978-'80 term was more closely watched than normal.

Speaker Don Tucker was completing a second, unprecedented term that was widely criticized among the press around the state as an unnecessary concentration of power for too long.

All three of the candidates to replace Tucker were from his inner circle, so to different degrees, they tried to distance themselves from the past.

The candidates were Reps. John Forbes, D-Jacksonville, Hyatt Brown, D-Daytona Beach and Ed Fortune, D-Pace. Their campaigns for speaker were largely driven by the numbers of new House members elected in the 1972, '74 and '76 elections.

They totaled almost all of the 80-or-so Democrats. All three classes were spawned from the historic reapportionment of the '60s, electing more liberal, contrarian and minority legislators. The controversy of Tucker’s two terms only drove the new legislators further from conservative traditions.

But the fourth branch of government -- the lobbyists -- was solidly behind the ‘good ol' boys and their clout got greater the closer the election.

All three candidates enjoyed substantial support from the lobbyists with Forbes boasting the legal, insurance, developer, and Jacksonville lobbyists.

Fortune, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for four straight years, had the widest lobbyist support of all the candidates, especially among supporters of the old Pork Chop Gang.

Brown was the closest candidate to the reformers, but even he had robust support among financial services and insurance lobbyists.

By most accounts, the race was close to a dead heat, with the Democrats split almost evenly among the three candidates.

But it took a decided turn in early 1977 when Rep. Forbes attempted to secure the speakership by offering key committee assignments to many of the urban legislators from South Florida.

The lobbyists heard about the tactic and went into action, resulting in Forbes caving to the Fortune camp. The lobbyists could taste victory and began peeling former Forbes supporters over to Fortune. It seemed like blood was in the water of Tallahassee politics, with the buzz being that it was Fortune’s election to lose.

It was over that time that I received a call from my colleague and suite mate, Rep. Sam Bell, inviting me to join him and several legislators for a Sunday get-together during committee meetings in the Capitol.

I usually spend the weekends in my district, so I was curious about the purpose of the meeting. Sam was discreet, and urged me to keep the particulars of the meeting clandestine.

In attending, I found additional colleagues present -- Reps. Hyatt Brown, Ralph Haben, Steve Pajcic, Lee Moffitt, George Sheldon, and Bell. Brown proceeded to tell us that his only chance to win the speakership was to call for a surprise election, and that would take 61 pledges from the House members.

At that time, Hyatt had almost 50 commitments. He said the longer the wait for the election, the near certainty that the lobbyists could secure the election for Fortune. Most important, Brown himself would only disclose the logistics of the special ‘sneak’ election to each of us secretly at a future date.

After a series of meetings among the group over several days, a time certain was given to us by Hyatt for securing signed pledges from 61 Democrats -- the attack. The plan called for setting up false debates on the floor, diverting legislators to different meetings, and stealthily soliciting pledges during the middle of the night all over Tallahassee.

We were aided by the massive diversion of our opponent, the Fortune team, by their attendance at the annual lobbyist-sponsored function, “The Redneck Party,” on the night of the attack.

When the sun rose that next morning, Rep. Brown met with Speaker Tucker in the bubble on the House floor asking for an immediate vote for the election of speaker.

The decision to hold the vote by Tucker was not automatic, as Pace was his best friend. But the 61 signed pledges given by Brown to Tucker during the meeting constituted a majority of the whole House, so the election took place only hours later. Brown was elected unanimously.

Pinned on the outside door to Brown’s office was an article describing the successful Israeli army sneak attack in Uganda several years earlier, drawing a parallel of our strategic election of Brown.

The election of Hyatt Brown as speaker of the House of Representatives became forever known in Florida politics as the Attack on Entebbe.



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 bob@flpoliticalcommentary.com.
 


Tags: News, Columns

Comments (2)

Barney Bishop III
8:29AM JUL 24TH 2014
Super story...thanks for telling it for us that are interested in Florida politics and legislative machinations...Hyatt Brown served with distinction as did all of the Speakers from that era
Bob McKnight
9:15AM JUL 24TH 2014
Thanks Barney. It just seems the planets lined up in those years....

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