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Politics

The Final Nail in the ‘Pork Chop Gang’ Coffin

July 29, 2014 - 6:00pm

In Florida, historians generally agree that the 1960 Census -- and the subsequent legislatively proposed reapportionment plans crafted during the decade -- paved the way for the most significant governance change in state history.

The U.S. Supreme Court approved the final plan in 1968, mandating the principle of "one person, one vote." This decision was made following the massive new election class of 1966. All across the state, newcomers filled either open seats, new seats; or in some cases sent the long-term veterans -- best known as members of the Pork Chop Gang -- packing. For the first time, Floridians heard the names of Askew, Thomas, Graham, Chiles, La Parte, Mann, Middlemas, Firestone, Horne, DAlemberte, Schultz, Reed, Myers, Gordon, Pettigrew, Dubbin, Turlington, Sessums, Plante, and Lewis, among many more. As has been chronicled by many before, the noise from the changes was deafening.

Starting in 1966, Florida elected a Republican governor, Republican legislators of a significant number, and minorities. Legislators completely rewrote their Constitution covering all three branches of government; passed historic laws protecting the elderly, the disabled and minorities; and reformed the criminal justice system (including the courts), education, elections, and the transportation system in the state.

But perhaps the most significant changes made were in the areas of ethics and the environment. In both cases, Democratic Govs. Reubin Askew and Bob Graham prodded the Legislature to pass their proposed statutory changes. Republican Govs. Claude Kirk and Bob Martinez heralded in landmark environmental laws enacted by the bipartisan Legislature.

The reforms in the legislative branch propelled the governing body from among the most regressive to the most progressive in the country. The prestigious Council of State Legislatures declared Floridas Legislature as the most independent in the country in the early 70s. The courts in the state were held up by state Bar Associations as a model for the country.

The executive branch was shrunk from over 100 agencies and streamlined into approximately 25 manageable organizations. The howling protests from the Capitol were heard from Pensacola to Key West, and everywhere between.

But largely overlooked in the early 70s, was the fact that the vestiges of the Pork Chop Gang still roamed the halls of the Capitol, wielding great power. I am not just talking about the lobbyists, which were still absorbing the shock of all the new faces from the urban areas of the state during the late '60s and early 70s. But there were still sitting lawmakers with ties, directly or otherwise, with the old Pork Chop Gang. The names of those powerful legislators, virtually all Democrats, are legendary -- Dempsey Barron, Don Tucker, Ed Fortune, Lew Brantley, W.D. Childers, Gus Craig, Billy Joe Rish, and C. Fred Jones, among others.

Under political siege from the urban "newbies," those veteran legislators closed ranks and rallied to hang on to their clout. As a result of their unity and some strong support from key lobbyists, the hold over members with ties to the Pork Chop Gang continued to win the prized seats of power in the Senate and House.

Make no mistake, the new legislators were many, but without experience and "chits" to navigate effectively the rules of both chambers. Masters like Sens. Verle Pope, Barron and Wig Barrow continued to run the Senate. In the House, Speakers Doyle Conner, E.C. Rowell, Tucker, and chairmen like Craig, Rish and Fortune called the shots.

But the final nail in the Pork Chop Gang coffin came in 1977, some 10 years after the historic court decision. In a clandestine ballot of the Democratic House Caucus, Speaker Hyatt Brown of Daytona Beach secured the necessary pledges to wrestle the 1979-'80 speakership from Rep. Ed Fortune of Pace. So, almost 20 years after that historic census of 1960, Floridas governing body finally reflected an approximation of the states population. It was a pivotal time in Florida politics, but largely overlooked today -- the coffin was nailed shut.

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.

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