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Claude Kirk, Florida's First GOP Governor Since Reconstruction, Dies

September 27, 2011 - 6:00pm

Former Gov. Claude Kirk, the colorful businessman who was Floridas first Republican governor since Reconstruction, died Wednesday at his home in West Palm Beach. He was 85.

Born in California in 1926, Kirk served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II and the Korean War. After attending the University of Alabama School of Law, Kirk founded the American Heritage Life Insurance Co. in Jacksonville.

While Kirk was a registered Democrat during the 1940s and 1950s, he often backed Republican candidates during that time. In 1960 he led Floridians for Nixon. He ran a spirited but unsuccessful campaign to defeat Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Spessard Holland in 1964.

In 1966, Kirk was the beneficiary of a perfect political storm. Liberal Miami Mayor Robert King High defeated incumbent Gov. Haydon Burns in the Democratic primary. With Burns refusing to endorse High and Kirk attacking the Miami mayors record on crime, the Republican went on to win in the 1966 general election.

Clashing with a Democratic Cabinet and Legislature, the colorful Kirk pushed for constitutional reform in the early days of his administration. He also married his wife, Erika, less than two months after being inaugurated. Kirk relished the limelight -- enjoying the spotlight in Jacksonville where he faced down radical civil rights activist H. Rap Brown, throwing out the first pitch at spring training and, when scuba diving, planting the Florida flag on the ocean floor.

There was buzz that Kirk had presidential and vice presidentialambitions. With the 1968 Republican National Convention held in Miami, Kirk had the chance to play a major role on the national political stage. But Kirk made a major miscalculation when he backed liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller of New York over Richard Nixon. Despite the governor backing Rockefeller, the majority of the Florida delegation supported Nixon, who went on to win the nomination. The vice presidential nomination -- for which Kirk could have been a contender -- went to Gov. Spiro Agnew of Maryland.

Kirk faced a Republican primary in 1970, which he survived, but he went on to lose the general election to Democrat Reubin Askew.

The former governor stayed on the political stage in Florida, running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1978, in which he placed sixth in a seven-candidate field. Kirk also ran without success for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. Senate race in 1986 and in 1990 for the education commissioner. Kirk also waged an underdog bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and backed activists who wanted to see his friend, auto executive Lee Iacocca, in the White House.

The former governor is survived by his wife, Erika Mattfeld Kirk, his seven children, 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Ann and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Governor Kirk, said Gov. Rick Scott in a statment released on Wednesday. He will be remembered as Florida's first Republican governor since Reconstruction and a strong, outspoken and capable leader for our state during an era of immense change in our country. Along with all Floridians, we send our condolences to his wife Erika and their entire family. Our prayers are with them during this challenging time.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859.

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