It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Florida wasn’t governed by ideologues toeing a party line. It was a time when our state was more genuine and less generic, when personalities could still trump politics and candor didn’t kill careers.
That time was in the 1990s, and I had the amazing good fortune to work in the administration of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.
One of my favorite memories was the night in 1992 when a bill exempting ostrich feed from the sales tax was on Chiles’ desk. As a press aide, I was working late, writing summaries of the governor’s actions on legislation. Major bills were often accompanied by signing ceremonies or press conferences, so it was mostly the less significant ones left in the late-night pile.
This particular evening was notable only because everyone expected Chiles to veto the ostrich feed exemption, a poster-child for special interest influence that was sponsored by Vernon’s Big Sam Mitchell.
For months, we had hammered home the message that such exemptions were eating away at Florida’s tax base, taking money from schools, law enforcement, children’s health and other critical needs. The press and most of the staff figured Big Sam’s bill was DOA. We were just waiting on the “D” part to become official.
One other person sharing my lonely vigil that night was Pat Riordan, then the public information director for the Board of Regents. Riordan was working on a speech for Charlie Reed, chancellor of the State University System. He wanted to highlight the measure as a shining example of what was wrong with the tax system, and the veto as a victory for Florida’s schools.
Riordan called every hour or so and I dutifully trotted down to the governor’s office to ask our chief of staff, Jim Krog, about the status of the bill.
On a couple of those trips, I had to wait on Krog to finish making a crank call to some poor legislator (at Chiles’ request), lying that the governor had inexplicably vetoed his pet local bill. After he and the governor had their laughs, Krog would end the torment, talk the lawmaker off the ledge and move on to the next victim.
Each time I asked about the ostrich feed bill Krog would only say, “He’ll get to it in a little while.” As that “little while” got to be about 9 p.m., Riordan finally said he was putting the item in Reed’s speech and going home.
“Call me if the governor changes his mind or anything,” he joked.
I can’t remember what time I made my last journey downstairs, but I knew there was a problem when Krog’s greeting was, “Let’s talk ostrich.” I laughed, but Krog was completely serious. Chiles was indeed letting the bill become law.
“How in the world are we going to explain this to the press?” I asked.
Krog didn’t miss a beat. “Just say that Floridians want and deserve bigger drumsticks,” he said.
I tried the line on Riordan, but it was late and he wasn’t amused.
Back in the press office, we made a half-hearted effort to spin it as economic development, but the news media weren’t buying it. The real reason, as everyone knew, was that Big Sam needed that bill – and Chiles needed him.
Chiles was looking at his larger priorities. He was counting on Big Sam’s support for tax reform, children’s issues, prisons and other difficult votes ahead. So he was willing to take the heat for helping his old friend. Sure enough, the editorial writers and columnists ripped him up pretty good.
Was it the best way to make a new law? Maybe not, but it was incredibly effective as well as highly entertaining. And despite all the changes since then, you’ll never convince me that today’s process is better in the least.
I still find it hard to believe that Gov. Chiles, Big Sam Mitchell, Jim Krog and Pat Riordan have all passed away now. To me, Florida is a poorer place in their absence.