Buddy Mackay autobiography
Book: Buddy MacKay's Take on Florida
Read an excerpt from Buddy MacKay's autobiography, 'How Florida Happened.' It recaptures a time which saw Florida grow from a semi-rural to a mega-state, where political dominance shifted from the left to the right.
How Florida Happened:
The Political Education of Buddy MacKay
By Buddy MacKay with Rick Edmonds
» Publish date: March, 31 2010, from the University Press of Florida. See book listing. Reprinted with permission.
More than a decade has passed since my political career came to a sudden end.
The results of my 1998 campaign to succeed Lawton Chiles as governor, while anguishing, had not been unexpected. Since July 1998, polls had consistently shown Jeb Bush with a lead that was big, but not insurmountable. In late August, though, just as voters were beginning
to pay attention and we were starting to close the gap, the Republican-
dominated Congress began an effort to impeach Bill Clinton. The charges had arisen out of a disgraceful sexual encounter in the Oval Office involving a young White House intern. The impeachment ultimately failed, but not before the resulting media spectacle had preempted every Democratic political campaign in America—including mine. Through heroic efforts and major sacrifices from friends and supporters, we narrowed the gap in my race against Jeb, but not by enough. In the end, I lost, and it wasn’t close.
That was not the saddest part, however. On December 10, 1998, my close friend and the state’s political icon, Lawton Chiles, died suddenly. I became governor of Florida for the final three weeks of our administration’s second term. Not only was I a lame duck, but the legislature and much of the rest of state government had gone home for the holidays. So, I accomplished very little except to oversee an extended period of mourning.
I spent most of the next two years as President Clinton’s special envoy to the Americas. I succeeded Mac McClarty, Clinton’s close friend and former chief of staff, in the role. Presidential envoys are appointed for a specific purpose, in situations of special concern to a president. A recent example is President Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations. The advantage to the parties is that the envoy speaks directly for the president, and also takes their messages directly back to the president, unfiltered by the State Department or other bureaucracies. In my case, as a special envoy, I was responsible for keeping the negotiations to achieve the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a hemispheric common market, on track. This had been a commitment of Clinton’s at the 1994 Summit of the Americas. If we had been able to achieve a hemispheric common market, all of America would have benefited, but no state would have gained as much as Florida. But the effort lost steam in the Bush administration and ended in limbo—never officially killed but not accepted either.
After four years as an adjunct professor of law, I really retired. For me, that meant mainly spending time with family, managing a family farm, and volunteering. I also had time to reflect on forty years of public life in Florida and to pull together material from journals and sketches I had written while in office. The result is the book you have in your hands. I am not an academician, and this is not a neutral work of scholarly research. Rather it is one participant’s recollection of events in the final four decades of the twentieth century—the period in which Florida became an out-of-control growth engine. With the brilliant exception of Governor LeRoy Collins and a few other progressive leaders, Florida was a politically backward state when I graduated from law school in 1961—only starting to free itself from the grip of segregation and the Pork-Chop Gang, a group of rural legislative “good old boys” whose main concern was to divide up the available pork. There were no “good old girls,” as women in politics were a rarity. Ideally, in the forty-plus years that followed, Florida should have matured politically as its population soared and its economic muscle grew. In my view, that has largely failed to happen. Florida still suffers from the adolescent’s inability to sacrifice short-term satisfaction to achieve long-term goals.
I was one of the leaders in the first successful effort to drag Florida away from its preoccupation with the Civil War and Reconstruction. This effort ultimately culminated in the reform of all three branches of Florida’s government. With the aid of courageous citizens, prosecutors, lawyers, and grand juries, we dragged the institutions of Florida’s government—kicking and screaming—from their position of intransigence (incompetent, segregated, and proud of it) to that of one of America’s most reformed state governments. In less than a decade, Florida embraced what many now call the “Golden Age” of state government.
My thesis is that the political maturity to make those difficult changes in the 1960s and 1970s came out of the common experience of young men in World War II and the Korean War. By 1967, there was a bipartisan consensus and an emerging new generation of leaders, not only in the public sector, but in the private sector and in the press as well. These men championed the effort to reform and modernize state government.
A second struggle was under way at the time I entered political life. In this instance, the battles were not being fought in Tallahassee, but in places like Miami, West Palm Beach, Gainesville, and Ocala. This grassroots struggle was not initially led by men, but by two fearless, pioneering women. The first of these, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was a writer and the daughter of Frank Stoneman, founder of the Miami Herald. At eighty years of age and almost totally blind, she founded Friends of the Everglades, one of America’s first environmental advocacy groups, and proceeded to nag, bully, scold, and ultimately persuade Florida’s political leaders to stop the destruction of the Everglades. I did not meet Douglas until later in my career, but I became acquainted with Florida’s “other Marjorie,” Marjorie Harris Carr, as soon as I announced for the Florida House of Representatives in 1968. My legislative district consisted of Alachua County, which opposed the Cross Florida Barge Canal as an environmental disaster, and Marion County, which supported the canal as an economic development bonanza. Campaigning in Alachua County, I got to know Carr and her advocacy group, Florida Defenders of the Environment. I also came to understand, early on, Florida’s need to balance a concern for the environment with its desire for growth and economic development. I entered politics as an admirer of Marjorie Harris Carr and an opponent of the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
Politically, the growth equation, which has not changed since 1968, is much more complicated than it looks. So long as the national economy is healthy, Florida looks golden. New construction in Florida is like new oil fields in Texas. Everybody wins. When the national economy falters, however, Florida’s economy goes into reverse. Or worse yet, when real estate prices collapse—as happened in the fall of 2008—we no longer get the revenue windfall associated with population growth and real estate booms, but the recession-related caseloads go up and massive budget cuts for schools and all other state programs become inevitable.
Much of my story is about these two parallel struggles. We were largely successful in reforming and modernizing Florida’s outmoded government, but somehow we never succeeded in balancing environmental protection with the desire to stimulate growth and economic development. In many respects, this is the story of the paradox of Florida. It is all the more fascinating because no one knows yet how it will end. Variations on Florida’s story have been told through the years by writers as different as Carl Hiaasen and Martin Dyckman. It is essentially the tale of how Florida’s postwar reform consensus was overwhelmed by its growth mentality, and how Florida’s tenuous political maturity of the seventies and eighties morphed into the naive and immature politics of today. If this sounds depressing, I’m misstating matters. I learned a long time ago that public life is not just a series of victories. Indeed it is a bad choice for those people who feel they always must win in order to be a success. Rather, politics is a mix of achievements and defeats, and the latter can come at considerable personal cost. Political involvement is more like a dialogue with advances, pauses, and setbacks. In my view, standing for something and joining the dialogue is the best way to participate, and a lot more satisfying than standing for nothing or simply dodging tough decisions in order to gain and hold office.
Besides, there is much fun to be had along the path. In my case some of the wilder adventures included campaigning in rural counties with their unusual folkways and methods of counting the vote. The wildest adventure of all was the Chiles-MacKay campaign in 1990, which was run from the sales floor of a Tallahassee car dealership. My bottom line on a political career of ups and downs in Florida is that I would still recommend it. In fact, some of the most important issues of my political life are still on the table in 2010, and I would be delighted if my stories help motivate at least a few readers to pick up the challenge and enter state politics.