Timing Is Everything (Especially in Politics)
I’m Scott Kelly, And I Want To Be Your Governor
A consummate Florida political leader collides with a state on the cusp of dramatic change
Written by Al Hutchison. Last updated Thursday July 23rd, 2009
[This article was first published October 31st, 2007. It is also located in the "A World of Books" section of this Web site.]
Then Sings My Soul: The Scott Kelly Story, by Dorothy Smiljanich. The Florida Historical Society Press. $17.95.
By AL HUTCHISON
To millions of Floridians, the name Scott Kelly will ring no bells, and even some of us who were around when Kelly was in the news - back in the 1950s and 1960s - may have difficulty remembering exactly why he was once a public figure.
So my friend Dorothy Smiljanich’s biography of Kelly, who ran for governor of Florida in 1964 and 1966, may not appeal to readers who are more interested in the lives of genuine celebrities from this or any other era. Maybe had Kelly won, the interest would be higher, but he lost both times. Then, in 1967, he lost an ill-advised bid for a return to the state senate (he’d been elected to the senate in 1956, when he was only 29) against a powerful and popular incumbent, E. C. Rowell of Webster.
If her story were only about Kelly, Smiljanich might find her audience largely limited to members of his family and his friends and admirers. But on another level altogether, her narrative provides a marvelous and, yes, important, introduction to a long-ago Florida when the state’s politics and economics were altogether different than they are today. To those of us who were here then, Then Sings My Soul is a wonderful and at times poignant reminder of another time. The title, incidentally, is a line from one of Kelly’s favorite hymns, “How Great Thou Art” (which was sung frequently at his political rallies by a gospel quartet).
His was a time when Florida’s Democrats far outnumbered Republicans. Actually, many of them, especially those from the more rural parts of the state, were Democrats out of long-standing custom and habit more than political philosophy. Many were just as conservative as the most reactionary Republican, but they were far more plentiful and therefore they prevailed in important legislative debates.
These rural Democrats were part of what the Florida press cheekily dubbed “The Pork Chop Gang” (one reporter explained that a Pork Chopper was any legislator who believed that downtown Sopchoppy was congested). This was before the courts demanded that Florida adopt a more equitable method of allocating the seats in the legislature. Once that mandated reapportionment took place, in 1966 (Smiljanich mistakenly writes that it occurred a year later), more progressive politicians from the state’s more urban areas gained the upper hand, but even then there were few Republicans among them.
Just as reapportionment changed politics in Tallahassee, the almost simultaneous advent of Walt Disney World in Orange County forever altered the state’s economic picture and presaged the tremendous growth that soon changed the very character of the state. While these two developments wrought huge and lasting changes to the state as a whole, on a more personal level they helped to sidetrack Scott Kelly’s dreams of becoming governor, dreams he had actively cultivated from an early age.
The political and economic landscape of Florida had changed dramatically. In a state where the more liberal urban areas were now flexing their political muscles, his rural roots became a handicap rather than an asset, even though he was one of the state’s more progressive politicians. He went on to enjoy financial success but his private life was erratic, at best (he confided that he suffered from bipolar disorder), and when he died in 2005 he was just a shadow of the dominant figure he’d formerly been.
Scott Kelly was born in 1927 in Madison, a hamlet in North Florida east of Tallahassee, and had grown up on a farm west of Tallahassee. Smiljanich’s account of his early life portrays him as energetic and ambitious but hardly idealistic, given the fact that he and a brother had enough cunning to steal eggs from their mother’s hens and sell them to line their own pockets.
Early on, he discovered he loved politics, but he also realized he’d have a difficult time achieving any of his goals, political or financial, if he remained in the small town of Quincy, where he had started a restaurant that devoured nearly all his time and his energy. So, newly married, he moved to Lakeland. Once there, he got deeply involved in city politics and in making money (banking, insurance, real estate, building ... you name it). He had briefly played football for the University of Florida Gators and later was closely associated with citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin, whose name now adorns the football stadium in Gainesville.
When he sought the Democratic nomination for governor, Kelly competed against better-known figures such as former Jacksonville mayor Haydon Burns and former Miami mayor Robert King High, both of whom had the advantage of big-county political bases. In 1964, Burns was elected to a two-year term as governor (the legislature had voted to have one shortened term so future gubernatorial elections would not be held in the same year as presidential elections) .In 1966, after again finishing behind Burns and High in the first primary, Kelly enthusiastically threw his support to High when Burns declared (he later recanted) that Kelly had offered to sell him his support for $50,000. With Kelly’s help, High won the runoff but lost the general election to Claude Kirk, who thus became Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
It’s been 41 years since Kirk took office. Little wonder, then, if today’s typical Floridian has never heard of him, although he’s alive and somewhat reluctantly granted Smiljanich an interview in which he was surly and sarcastic (unlike Kirk the candidate, who was extremely good natured). If Kirk’s name doesn’t resonate, why should Kelly’s?
Smiljanich’s account of Kelly’s campaigns is based largely on newspaper accounts and interviews with reporters - including this reviewer - and others (such as Kelly’s aide, Larry Libertore) who were there, as well as Kelly’s own memories. She interviewed him frequently and at length (occasionally challenging him and being challenged by him). She also traveled with him to his birthplace and his childhood home, visits that stirred his memories and added texture to his tale.
It’s not an easy task, getting readers to care about a relatively obscure and recently deceased politician, yet Smiljanich succeeds. But Kelly’s is by no means the only story her book tells. It also tells the story of a state that almost totally changed in the span of Scott Kelly’s life. And to truly know today’s Florida, it helps to understand yesterday’s. (30)