There was a time when men and women of substance went off to Tallahassee to debate great issues and resolve immense problems. At a time when the state was held firmly in the grip of racists, good men like LeRoy Collins stepped forward.
In his run for the governor’s seat back in 1956, Collins beat Charley Johns, a man who made a big name for himself working hard to ferret out so-called Communists, gays, and those sympathetic to voting rights for Black citizens from Florida government. Collins was subsequently reelected in 1956. In an era where governors in other Southern states were clinging to segregation, Collins began moving our state towards progress. Later, Collins was an advocate for civil rights.
But LeRoy Collins wasn’t the only political giant in Florida’s history. The past 50 years have seen men like Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Bill Sadowski, Lee Moffitt, and Jeb Bush elected and assume positions of leadership.
Sadowski was famous for explaining that the seat he occupied did not belong to him – rather, it was only loaned to him by the people and that he had an obligation to pass it on to the next occupant who could make Florida better than when he first took office. That spirit seems to have died with Sadowski.
We have certainly suffered our share of fools, with men like Hal Spaet and Mark Foley. The list of those who were mired in sordid scandals and mediocrity could go on for days.
A couple years back, Harvard University’s Safra Center on Ethics conducted a survey measuring illegal and legal corruption in American states. In it, they described “Illegal corruption” as cash or gifts to a government official in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups. “Legal corruption” was the exchange of campaign contributions or endorsements for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups whether by explicit or implicit understandings.
Not surprisingly, Harvard revealed that Florida ranks high on the list of the worst states. We were judged to have moderately illegal corrupt Executive Branch (the Office of the Governor and the state administration), while our Legislature (House and Senate) were seen as very illegally corrupt. On the legal corruption side, both Florida’s Executive and Legislative Branches were seen as very corrupt.
Overall, Florida did better than states like Arizona, California, Kentucky, and Alabama, but it’s a ranking that we shouldn’t be proud of. That’s like saying, our houses were all on fire, but at least the flames were brighter next-door. That’s nothing to brag about.
Corruption starts at both the top and the bottom. It flourishes because of the greed of those at the top and the sloth of those on the lower rungs. Instead of clamoring for transparency and accountability, our politicians show more concern over keeping a nose count of members of their own parties.
This last legislative session is a good example. The Florida Society of News Editors issued a new set of rankings for Florida’s legislators based on how they vote on bill that affect transparency. The results for local politicians were disappointing to say the least. Only Rep. Joe Geller, a Democrat from Aventura, scored an A+. Senators Oscar Braynon II, Daphne Campbell, and Annette Taddeo were all graded F. The rest of the Miami-Dade delegation didn’t do so well.
Florida is the literal birthplace for Government in the Sunshine. The willingness of our lawmakers to draw the curtains on access to government records and meetings is inexcusable.
The problem calls for a radical solution. When there has been a slight termite infestation, it is enough to tent the structure. But when the very structure has been compromised, there may be little choice but to bulldoze it flat and start over.
That is what this current election season calls for: a bulldozer. Our politicians have become too complacent. They’re far too concerned with carrying the water for the special interest groups and lobbyists.
I say, let’s toss them all out – Republicans and Democrats alike. Next January, we’re getting a new governor. So let’s elect a totally new Florida Legislature while we’re at it. When we do so, we’ll remind each one of them that those seats belong to the people of Florida. And that public business should always be conducted in the sunshine.