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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Reubin Askew, July 8, 1974. Interview A-0045. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Making decisions as a politician

Askew says that he does not like politics enough to take positions simply for their political expediency. He offers some examples of unpopular positions he took that benefited Floridians. Askew walks a fine line between responsiveness to popular demands, frequently referring to "confidence in the people," and taking positions irrespective of constituents' desires.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Reubin Askew, July 8, 1974. Interview A-0045. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER DE VRIES:
How do other politicians react to you when you take those sorts of stands? People who have been in this business a long time. You take very deliberate, controversial public positions, which any politician in his right mind wouldn't take and . . . .
REUBIN ASKEW:
Well, when I first advocated reapportionment, coming from northwest Florida, which was a somewhat comparable thing and I had a great deal of advice from friends that I shouldn't take that position, but I have always felt like, you know, that. . . I have an expression that I have to explain, that "I haven't lost a thing in politics." And by that, I mean that I don't have to be in it. That it is very much a part of my life, but if I really don't believe that I'm making a contribution and being honest with the people whose trust they have placed in me, then I really shouldn't be there. And I know that many times, political expediency would dictate something otherwise, but I just have had a lot of them say, "Well, I agree with what you are saying, you know, but I certainly don't want to run the risk of taking that position." But here again, it depends on how bad you want to be in politics. I simply don't want to be in politics that badly. I mean, as much as it means to me to be governor, I simply would not want to be governor if I really didn't feel like I could level with the people. And I think Don, without necessairly quoting me, because it sounds somewhat self-serving . . . but there was a poll taking about ninety days after the busing issue and of course, some of us succeeded in putting a second question on that referendum and that is, "Do you favor equality of educational opportunity and not going back to any dual system of public schools?" Well, a lot of people overlooked that question, but I thought that it was important to me, because it passed by a little larger vote than the anti-busing amendment passed. And we were the first state in the nation that had had segregation as a matter of law, that had voted three to one not to go back to it. You know, which I felt was somewhat significant. And a poll was taken just to see what the reaction of the people was, and I think about 72% of the people said that even though they disagreed with me, they respected my courage and willingness to speak out on it. Again, I say that not for quotes, but it's a Hamilton poll, where you can just read it for yourself. But I had people in Pensacola tell me for years, you know, that "I don't agree with you, but you are honest and you are sincere and you're trying to do a job for us and that's all we can expect." One of the toughest political issues I had during my whole political career was on the question of whether to convert or not to convert the Pensacola Junior College into a four year degree granting institution. And I had just been elected senator and they were all over me. Because the community overwhelmingly, with the prodding of the faculty at the community college, says, "Make us a four year college." And I had the whole legislature against me. I had one public official in all of the county, one guy on the city council, who favored my position, and he was really for it, because the city manager was against it and he was always against what the city manager was for. But again, I made up my mind then that I would be taking the easy way out and selling young people short for years to come if we wound up in anything in west Florida other than a university in real name as opposed to a hybrid four year college that might get secondary budgetary considerations and we would destroy one of the best junior colleges in the nation. And we would began a series of moves that would start converting other junior colleges, you know, and we would destroy what I felt would become one of the best community college systems in the nation. I felt strongly about it and I won it, we finally won over the community. But I had all types of people telling me that I had just completely removed myself from politics.
WALTER DE VRIES:
How many times have they told you that?
REUBIN ASKEW:
Well, a good bit, but I . . . .
WALTER DE VRIES:
So, what do you think about all that conventional wisdom?
REUBIN ASKEW:
I think that it's wrong. Because I believe that one of the fundamental responsibilites of people in public service is to have a willingness to lead and not simply just to respond. I think a public official must be responsive, but he also must have enough confidence in the people, in their choice of him or her, that he should share with them why he feels like he does to try and help them reconcile their views. And I feel strongly against government by poll, you know, to find out exactly how the people feel without having the benefit of the information that goes into public decisions. And this goes to the whole heart of a representative form of government, you know, because you elect people and you place a certain trust in them. Now, if they are not responsive to your satisfaction, you have an opportunity to show that by dramatically removing them.
JACK BASS:
Do you believe in polling as a tool in decision making?
REUBIN ASKEW:
No, I've never used it.
WALTER DE VRIES:
But a good poll would have told you that the conventional wisdom was wrong, that the people indeed wanted that leadership.
REUBIN ASKEW:
Let's put it this way. I have felt very deeply that ever since the day I got in politics, I have felt like that is short sight. I would much rather rest my case with the people and be judged on the totality of my service than worrying about whether every decision meets with a majority favorable reaction. And I think that more and more people are looking at the person rather than just how they take a position on every issue. And that's how I'm willing to be judged. When I first ran, you know, there were efforts to close down the public school system and when I first ran for the legislature, I took positions against closing the public school system, what was then called the Last Resort Bill. And people just said, "Well, you won't get elected, not over here." But I came within a few votes of beating five people in the first primary and won decisively in the second and I've never had a close election. Again, I don't want to be quoted on that, because that sounds self-serving, but I'm telling you why I feel that if you have enough confidence in the people and can properly present yourself and your views they will respond if they feel that you are talking straight to them. And I think that is essentially what leadership is about.