Reubin Askew Fought Against Abortion on the National Stage
Around the State
Accolades are pouring in for the late Gov. Reubin Askew, D-Fla., with political leaders and pundits praising him for being one of the great governors in Florida history and for his commitment to civil rights and open government. But one thing about Askew’s political career is being overlooked: his opposition to abortion.
During his ill-fated bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, Askew called for a constitutional amendment against abortion. In a debate in Des Moines with his primary rivals in February 1984, Askew admitted his position set him apart from the rest of the field. In fact, Askew was actually the last in a line of pro-life Democratic presidential candidates, following the footsteps of Sargent Shriver and Ellen McCormack.
“I guess one of the reasons that I'm different on it is that I do favor a constitutional amendment to reverse Roe v. Wade in order to let Congress set a national standard,” Askew said.
“First of all, I think we need to recognize that we are headed, by the turn of the century, toward complete feminization of poverty in which almost all of the poor people in this country are going to be women, households headed by just one parent, the woman, and children,” Askew said. “The first thing I'd do is try to pass the equal rights amendment to the United States Constitution. The second is I would hold all those people who are against ERA but are for the economic improvement of women to work for the economic equity act in the Congress to give them a chance to fish or cut bait, the education equity act, which helps to remove so many stereotypes in so much of the programs that we deal with.
“My record as governor was one of bringing women into my administration and in fact we have only, I guess, some token men in our Iowa campaign structure,” Askew added. “I say that because I value these women and the leadership role that they can play.”
Askew even blamed the pro-choice movement for the ERA’s demise. “I think one of the reasons the ERA was defeated was that some chose to tie it in to the abortion issue,” Askew said. “I personally strongly support the Equal Rights Amendment. As far as abortion is concerned, obviously I disagree with many of the feminist organizations. I believe that we should amend the Constitution, reverse Roe v. Wade. I don't think the Constitution ever intended for a constitutional right to an abortion.”
But then Askew always prided himself on being different. He was a breath of fresh air in Tallahassee after he beat Gov. Claude Kirk, R-Fla., the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction, in 1970. Unlike the flamboyant and confrontational Kirk, Askew was a teetotaler who was a consensus builder. Askew became one of the poster boys of the “New South” as a new generation of Southern governors who fought for civil rights.
Easily one of the best governors in Florida history, Askew stumbled badly when he tried to play on the national stage. He gave the keynote to the chaotic Democratic presidential convention in Miami Beach that nominated then-U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., to challenge President Richard Nixon in 1972. Turning down McGovern’s offer to be his running mate, Askew looked poised for higher office.
He would have been the perfect Democratic presidential candidate in 1976. After Watergate, Askew would have been a good fit for voters. He was honest and an outsider. But fellow New South Democrat Jimmy Carter had the same credentials as the Florida governor, fit the bill and entered the contest while Askew stayed out. After his two terms as governor, Askew worked in the Carter administration on trade issues. Still, with his record in Tallahassee, it’s easy to imagine Askew doing a better job in the White House than Carter did.
While his family’s obituary insisted he considered running for president in 1984, Askew actually ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. By this point, Askew was a fish out of water despite pushing a “new union” on the domestic front. Unlike most of his primary rivals, he did not support the nuclear freeze movement and went out of his way to distance himself from the AFL-CIO.
Askew also was an opponent of abortion. As an unapologetic foe of Roe v. Wade, he paid the price. Despite his credentials, he was a nonfactor in the presidential contest. After working Iowa, Askew only took 2.5 percent of the vote there and 1 percent in New Hampshire. He dropped out and threw his support behind Gary Hart’s challenge against Walter Mondale.
Askew would launch another political comeback attempt after then-U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, D-Fla., announced he would not run for a fourth term. But the former governor ditched his bid early in the process.
As she reviewed his political career after his passing Thursday, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant ignored Askew’s position on abortion.
“Reubin Askew was a giant of Florida history, whose unparalleled accomplishments for the people of Florida set the example all Floridians elected to public office strive to meet,” said Tant. “We will miss his wisdom, his friendship, and his leadership in difficult times.
“Reubin Askew leaves behind a legacy as strong as the principles he fought for. His commitment to honesty in government, to civil rights, and to the middle class restored people’s faith that government could work for them,” Tant added. “Reubin Askew will live on in the memories of those who knew him and in the lives of the millions of Floridians whose lives he touched. Let us all continue to serve Florida in that spirit."
It’s no surprise that Tant ignored Askew’s position on abortion. But it’s surprising that Republicans also ignored it in their tributes. Gov. Rick Scott announced flags will be at half-staff across Florida Thursday until sunset on the day he is buried. Scott nevertheless ignored Askew’s opposition on abortion.
"Gov. Askew served our nation as a veteran, he served Florida’s families as an elected officeholder, and he served our children as an educator,” Scott said. “He helped lead Florida to enormous growth and was a trailblazer for good government. His advocacy for Florida’s sunshine laws was a landmark moment for ethics and transparency in government, and that legacy continues to endure.
“His accomplishments were vast, but he remained humble and took his commitment to public service seriously,” Scott added. “Gov. Askew strove to make life better for all of Florida’s families, and that dedication is an example for all who followed in his footsteps. Ann and I mourn his passing and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Donna Lou, and his entire family."
Other Republicans followed suit with the likes of Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) Chairman Lenny Curry and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, also ignoring Askew’s stance on abortion in their tributes to the former governor.
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com.