In 2009 Annual Conference

Robert_McKnightBy Jenifer Lowe

Best reason to attend this session: Autographed book given to all in attendance! The Golden Years…Florida Legislature, 70’s and 80’s Reflections on Campaigns and Public Service. This book is under contract with PBS to be made into documentary, narrated by Robert McKnight – “The Golden Age of Florida Politics.”

After the 1947 hurricane, Floridians looked to government for help to drain floodwaters, repair and recover. Land development exploded during this process. Homestead exemption was established.  Farming and cattle ranching became big around Lake Okeechobee. This era was likened to the “Gold Rush” days.

In 1960’s politics, politicians were dubbed “pork choppers,” cornering favored legislation. A population boom happened Orlando southward on both sides of state. “One person, one vote” was born. Power shifted in the Senate, diluting the power of the “pork choppers.” New faces, baby boomers, people with college educations and war veterans emerged in Florida politics. Florida legislation created “New Modern Constitution” – considered the largest political reform in Florida history. Education, ethics, courts, environmental, and social services became key issues.

My how things have evolved since the 70’s! What happened? How did we get off track? We are so tangled up now. McKnight suggested these three points are to blame:

1. Early 80’s began single member districts to eliminate discrimination. Now, politicians are only concerned with their own geographic borders. All else happening north of X Street and east of Y Avenue is of no concern to them, as they are out playing golf.

2. Term limits – (prior to this there was no limit) Some would argue 8 years is enough! This change was sought through Constitutional amendments so it is forever. Now that we are limiting legislatures, but we are not limiting staff (largely involved in intricacy of law making) and the lobbyists, we have lost the continuity.

3. Social media – We have the immediacy of social media but weakened the press and their power. “Press has a cleansing effect.” A reporter in the White House will ask, “Senator…you said this but you didn’t do that,” and hold them accountable. With that, the public has an opportunity to see both sides; to ask questions and demand answers. Social media says, “Senator, you’re a lousy person!” and the whole world believes it.

Education is a Hot Topic

A large part of Florida’s budget is education. There is a Department of Education in Tallahassee. Part of that department is the Board of Regents – several PhDs studying issues such as too many degrees in one discipline or at one college. There are unfunded needs in some (most) universities.

True story: A Senator proposed to create a university in Lake Wales, knowing there are accredited universities in Orlando and Tampa nearby. The Senator said, “We don’t have funding for the universities we have!” The idea was nonsense, but it came to fruition because he was a very powerful Senator and Governor Scott gave it the “Okay.” It will be opening in Lakeland soon.

Another true story: A senator looked at a proposed university by the Board of Regents that would be named after him. He scoffed at the idea and wanted the issue taken off the agenda. He said, “These are tough times and I don’t think any purpose would be served by naming that school after me.” McKnight draws this parallel of two opposing mentalities. “It’s important the right people are casting the right vote for the right reason,” McKnight enforced.

What’s at Stake?

There are some bad people in government, making bad decisions. McKnight’s personal prediction: The governor will be a weak leader. Here’s why… “My biggest concern with Governor Scott is that he is clueless. No idea how government works. I wouldn’t either. It took me 10 years. You only have 4 years. It’s such a short time to conquer critical needs (Medicaid funding). Charlie Christ is not clear on what he stands for. He says so much that is contradictory. Very hard to believe. Mann is strongly a liberal so if you are in the middle, it’s hard to side with her.”

This will result in a lot of litigation; the courts will have to make all the decisions.

Good to know – Legislative branch appropriates the money. Governor actually has no money!

Coming in: Republican Andy Gardiner, Hospital Exec. who went to school at Stetson, from Orlando. Resides over Orange and Brevard Counties. Senate President…very powerful person. Republican Steve Crisafulli, real estate agent, FSU grad. Majority House Leader.

**Politicians that come in with baggage create ethical issues.

How do we get involved as PR people?

1. Candidates – handling campaigns. We may have an issue we feel passionate about or have a candidate that is for or against an issue we connect with. Do research, be a sponge, get involved, build relationships. McKnight gave an example of people targeting his wife to befriend her, play cards with her, shop with her…to get to him.

2. Issues – You can work on your communication message, image building on an issue. There are sure to be at least 5 statewide campaigns that will likely come forward this year. Local or statewide issues. Define your audience, segmentation, craft a message, determine how you measure it.

3. Get involved and create something. McKnight shared a hypothetical story: There are sprinkler repair people. A new business is born – their job is regulating sprinkler repair people. You suggest to found an association including a certification for sprinkler repair people so they are taken seriously. One annual meeting and 4 regional meetings. Discussion topics include chinch bugs, types of PVC pipe, annual sprinkler guy of the year is awarded. You suggest “I will be your PR person!” In this story, working with government, they created a client and a business in their PR position.

Closing thought: “Don’t let politics spook you. There is so much to get involved in.”


Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida State Senator and Representative who represented South Florida in the legislature during the 1970s and ‘80s. That era of Florida politics has been described by the Florida Press Corps as the “Golden Age” of Florida politics, due to the large influx of new, urban-oriented legislators replacing the long-entrenched good ol’ boy network known as the “Pork Chop Gang.” McKnight served with such political luminaries as Governors Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush, along with legislative giants like Senators Dempsey Barron, Phil Lewis and Speaker Dick Pettigrew. The legislative achievements recorded during the Golden Age are still reverberating in the halls of the Capitol.

The Senator has written two nationally-recognized books about his political experiences and currently provides statewide political commentary in the Tallahassee Democrat/Gannett Media and on the weekly television program, “Facing Florida,” airing on ABC, CBS and FOX television stations. He and his wife live in Tallahassee and dote over their six grandchildren and two grown children.


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