March 25, 2019

Pages from the Past: July 1977

Florida's Dark Horse, New Deal Governor

David Sholtz was the darkest of dark horses, but he won nomination by the greatest majority ever won in Florida at that time.

Gene Burnett | 6/1/2008
Sholtz and Roosevelt
Governor Sholtz, middle, rode through Jacksonville with President Roosevelt in 1936.

The seers stood in puzzled awe in last year’s presidential election as they watched a little known rise up to confound the major candidates, the party pros and machine bosses, the infallible prophets of TV and newspaper, and all the conventional odds involving religion, region and financial resources, to win his party’s nomination — and the election.

But about 45 years ago, a Florida gubernatorial candidate performed a similar “miracle” against odds at least as formidable if not greater, when David Sholtz moved quietly out of his dark horse stable to stun the state’s powers and pundits and become Florida’s 26th chief executive in 1932 — and a New Deal protegé of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In a sense, Sholtz even “out-Cartered” Jimmy Carter because he had ethnic and regional image problems that would have hog-tied any mere tourist, much less a seeker of the state’s highest office, in that hard-shell Cracker and Bible Belt land that was so much of Florida in the l930s.

The son of immigrant parents, he was a Yankee (a Brooklyn, New York-born one at that), and a lawyer who had lived in the state (Daytona Beach) only 15 years. He was an honors graduate of that symbol of Eastern Establishment “pointyheadedness” — Yale, class of 1915. He was also of Jewish ancestry. (This latter fact injected an ugly note of anti- Semitism in the race, but it may well have tipped the scale against the odds-on favorite who injected it.)

Staggering handicaps enough — but only openers. Sholtz was a relative unknown in his first try for major office. He had no support from the old line political organizations or bosses and virtually no funds for media advertising. Above all, he was running against two powerful former governors of the 1920s, John W. Martin and Cary A. Hardee, who all pros agreed would easily be the run-offers. If these two sure bets were not enough, they were joined in the first primary by five formidable candidates — Stafford Caldwell, Charles M. Durrance, Arthur Gomez, Thomas S. Hart and J. Tom Watson. Sholtz was also strongly opposed in his own Volusia County with a clouty political machine bossed by Francis Whitehair.

Wiser wags and cynics smiled benignly if somewhat in disbelief at this genial, urbane, portly little upstart, as if to ask: What’s a nice little Yankee Jewish boy like you doing among these native son giants who will cut you up like so much fish bait? No one took David Sholtz seriously, except the unnervingly optimistic David himself. Even up to final election eve, state gambler odds against him were 200 to one.

He was the darkest of dark horses. But he would win the nomination by the greatest majority ever garnered in the history of the state to that time.

David was born in Brooklyn, Oct. 5, 1891, to Michael and Annie (Bloom) Sholtz, the father having immigrated from Germany at age 15. The elder Sholtz prospered in investments and real estate and moved to Daytona Beach in the early l900s and became active in business affairs there. David, after Yale, came to Daytona to live and took a law degree from Stetson University in 1916.

Still practicing law, he offered himself for the legislature that same year and, with strong grass roots support, won against the opposition of the local “Courthouse Ring”. But in World War I, he took a leave of absence and joined the Navy as an ensign, serving four years. In 1921, he resumed his Daytona practice and in 1925 married Alice Mae Agee. They had one son of their own and three adopted children.

Long active in local and state civic affairs, Sholtz was elected president of the Florida State Chamber of Commerce in 1927. While in this post, he not only developed a wide range of state interests but also nurtured a growing interest in government, along with some keen ideas on how it might best serve all citizens and not merely a few of the long-entrenched machines and special interests. And by now he had his eye on the only single post he knew that could help bring about such changes — the governorship.

However, by the time the elections of 1931 rolled around, the state needed more than a few changes. Already reeling from the heavy blow of the crash of the Florida Boom, the state was being drawn still deeper into the vortex of the great national depression. The state was by now in an unconstitutional condition of debt and these woes were compounded further in that 150 Florida towns were in default on their obligations.

The legislature itself, struggling for urgently-needed revenues, could engage in vehement and, yes, bloody debates over adoption of a then unheard of one-penny gas tax. The new rug on the floor of the Florida House was splotched with the blood of solons actually fighting over the tax and the session dragged into 100 days until a powerful west coast political boss, Peter 0. Knight, who had opposed the tax, sent 38 telegrams, (one for each senator), reading: “Pass gas, tax bill and come on home.” They did.

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