- Associated Press - Thursday, March 13, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew was remembered Thursday by Democrats and Republicans as a leader who left enduring legacies in open government and ethics, and as a champion for gender and racial equality.

But the humble Panhandle Democrat saw his many accomplishments in a different light.

“I didn’t think I was particularly remarkable,” Askew said in a 1998 interview. “I was just there.”

Askew, who served as governor from 1971 to 1979, died Thursday morning, five days after he was admitted to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Over the past three months, he suffered a stroke and pneumonia and also had hip surgery, said Ron Sachs, a former aide and family spokesman. He was 85.

“He was humble, he was visionary, he was wise and effective,” Democrat Bob Graham, who succeeded Askew as governor and later served three terms in the U.S. Senate, said in a telephone interview. “He was a good friend and a great public servant. Florida was lucky to have him.”

It’s a feeling also shared by Republicans.

“He led on contentious issues, fought for equality and did what he believed was in the best interests of Florida families,” said former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. “Governor Askew always put principle before politics, and I was fortunate to know him, seek counsel from him and learn from his years of service.”

Askew rose from obscurity in the Florida Legislature to become the Democrats’ surprise gubernatorial nominee in 1970 and then defeated the incumbent Republican, Claude Kirk.

His eight years in office coincided with the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate and dramatic social change across the nation. He was a liberal on racial issues and pushed for an overhaul of the state’s tax laws, open government, environmental protection, ethics legislation and streamlining the courts and other governmental agencies.

Askew integrated the Florida Highway Patrol, and appointed the first black in 100 years to the Florida Cabinet and the first black Supreme Court justice. He also appointed the first woman to the Cabinet and supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but Florida lawmakers failed to ratify it, a major disappointment for him.

“His advocacy for Florida’s sunshine laws was a landmark moment for ethics and transparency in government, and that legacy continues to endure,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement released by his office. “His accomplishments were vast, but he remained humble and took his commitment to public service seriously.”

Upon being elected governor, Askew immediately called a special session of the Legislature to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment for a corporate income tax. Askew stumped the state in support of the measure, which voters adopted by a 2-1 margin.

In his first year, he also won passage of penal and judicial overhaul, including the nonpartisan election of judges.

“Governor Askew opened up government to the people, allowing our state to be progressive on critical issues like civil rights, education, and ethics. He was a public servant, a teacher of students, and now a lesson of hope and progress forever sketched into the history of our beautiful state,” former Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. Crist served as a Republican and is now seeking his former job as a Democrat.

Askew began the practice of using nominating commissions for judicial appointments to limit political influence. The commission system subsequently was enshrined in the Florida Constitution.

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