By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Former Florida Governor Reubin Askew, a champion of tax reform and open government who became a pivotal figure in Florida politics, died on Thursday aged 85.
He was admitted to hospital in Tallahassee on Saturday with pneumonia and suffered a stroke, according to his former aide, Ron Sachs, speaking on behalf of the family.
Askew was known as one of the "New South" governors - Jimmy Carter in Georgia, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas and John West in South Carolina were others - who were elected in 1970 and turned the region's political focus away from race and toward education, economic development and environmental concerns.
He was the keynote speaker of the 1972 Democratic National Convention and was considered a possible vice-presidential nominee. He said he did not want to put his family in the glare of national attention, though he later made a brief run for president in 1984, dropping out after a low finish in the New Hampshire primary.
It was widely known that Askew did not concur with some of the more liberal positions of the nominee that year, Senator George McGovern.
Askew was known for implementing Florida's corporate income tax, which was the cornerstone of his 1970 campaign for governor, and for the "Sunshine Amendment" that mandated financial disclosure by public officials.
He appointed the first black Supreme Court justice, Joseph Hatchett, successfully fought casino gambling in 1978 and advocated advancement of women in state agencies and political positions.
TRIBUTES FLOW IN
Florida Governor Rick Scott ordered state and U.S. flags to fly at half mast at all local and state buildings on Thursday as a mark of respect.
In a statement Scott said Askew "helped lead Florida to enormous growth and was a trailblazer for good government. His advocacy for Florida's sunshine laws was a landmark moment for ethics and transparency in government, and that legacy continues to endure."
Former Governor Jeb Bush said "Florida has lost one of the great leaders who played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of our state during a time of substantial growth and change."
In another tribute, Florida Senator Bill Nelson said Askew "was one of the best examples of integrity in the public square," adding "he believed that 'a public office is a public trust'."
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Askew moved to Pensacola with his mother in 1937 when his parents divorced. He served in the Army 1946-48 as a paratrooper, then attended Florida State University, becoming student body president. He rejoined the military 1951-53 as an Air Force intelligence officer, then got his law degree at the University of Florida.
Askew was an assistant prosecutor for two years before his election to the Florida House in 1958. He was elected to the Senate in 1962 and beat Republican Governor Claude Kirk in 1970. He was easily re-elected in 1974.
In addition to the corporate income tax, which took a constitutional amendment passed in a special election, Askew implemented Judicial Nominating Commissions, giving up the governor's patronage power to select judges, along with merit retention elections, in which appellate jurists are up for a yes-or-no vote, rather than running against opponents.
He also made the Public Service Commission an appointed, rather than elected, utility regulation body.
After a series of scandals in state offices and the Florida Supreme Court, Askew sponsored a public petition drive for the "Sunshine Amendment" in 1976, the first petition campaign to succeed in amending the Constitution. The amendment requires public officers to disclose their personal financial sources and imposes a two-year ban on lobbying after they leave office.
After leaving office in early 1979, Askew served as President Carter's foreign trade representative. He returned to law practice in Florida in the early 1980s.
After a brief presidential bid in 1984 he started to run for the U.S. Senate in 1988 but again dropped out, disappointed with the constant demands to raise money.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Donna Lou Askew, and by his son Kevin Askew and daughter Angela White and several grandchildren.
(Editing by David Adams and Stephen Powell)