Like Father, Like Son: The Passing of LeRoy Collins, Jr.
The tragic death of LeRoy Collins, Jr., last Thursday morning brought back a flood of memories not only about the widely-respected retired Navy rear admiral and executive director of Florida’s Department of Veterans Affairs, but also about his courageous and far-sighted father, regarded by many as the Sunshine State’s greatest governor.
The son of a Tallahassee neighborhood grocer, the senior Collins had worked his way through business and law school before winning a seat in the state legislature in 1932 at the age of twenty-five.
The young Leon County lawmaker became a state Senator in 1940 and was still serving in that chamber fourteen years later when he defeated acting governor and Senate President Charley E. Johns, a staunch conservative, in a hotly-contested runoff before easily trouncing Republican J. Tom Watson, a former Democratic attorney general who died shortly before the general election, to become the state’s 33rd governor.
As governor from 1955 to 1961, Collins successfully steered Florida — a state still very much part of the segregationist Old South — on a moderate course, promoting racial justice while avoiding the fiery extremism engulfing other southern states, particularly those in the Deep South, as a result of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.
It was a courageous thing to do, especially given the fact that eighty percent of Floridians opposed that ruling.
As sit-ins at lunch counters slowly spread to cities in Florida, Collins publicly denounced white store owners who refused to serve African-Americans at their lunch counters while encouraging them to patronize other parts of their establishments.
In many respects, Collins, who had endorsed segregation during his 1954 and 1956 gubernatorial campaigns, paved the way for the “New South,” helping to transform his state economically, politically and socially while making it attractive to capital and industry.
“I realized that we had to change,” said Collins, who proved to be the very antithesis of Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas, Georgia’s Lester Maddox, the fiery George C. Wallace of Alabama and other segregationist governors of that tumultuous period.
“LeRoy Collins was a genuine profile in courage, governing during one of the most turbulent and violent periods in Florida and U.S. history,” said Doug Guetzloe, an Orlando-based political consultant and radio talk-show host whose grandmother served as former governor Collins’ legal secretary at a Tampa law firm for about ten years after he left office.
Much like his intrepid father, LeRoy Collins, Jr. also dedicated his life to public service. Despite his political pedigree, the younger Collins, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956, during the second year of his father’s six-year reign as governor of Florida, chose a completely different path.
“Like his dad, the rear admiral was a man of integrity,” Guetzloe told the Jacksonville Observer. “The whole family was an incredible testament to public service.”
Well beyond his prime, the younger Collins — then a septuagenarian — briefly sought to follow in his father’s footsteps, beginning a startlingly late career in politics by mounting a seemingly implausible last-minute bid for Democrat Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat in 2006.
His father, out of office for nearly eight years, ran for the Senate almost forty years earlier.
Mounting a “last hurrah” in 1968, the older Collins lost to Winter Park Republican Edward J. Gurney in a campaign marred by strong racial overtones, including a widely-distributed campaign flier showing Collins walking next to Martin Luther King, Jr., during the historic civil rights march in Selma in 1965.
As director of the Community Relations Service, a federal agency established after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the elder Collins had hurried to Selma at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s request to negotiate a compromise between the marchers and Alabama law enforcement authorities in a heroic effort to avert a violent outcome.
Coming on the heels of infamous “Bloody Sunday,“ when police officers fired teargas and beat nonviolent protesters with nightsticks, resulting in the hospitalization of no fewer than fifty defiant marchers, Collins succeeded in preventing a potentially bloody confrontation by arranging a largely symbolic march — an important fact that was excluded from the scurrilous, race-baiting literature distributed by his opponent’s supporters during the bitterly-contested 1968 Senate campaign.
The conservative Gurney, who defeated the ex-governor by nearly 239,000 votes, succeeded by hanging a “liberal” tag on the silver-haired Collins — they called him “Liberal LeRoy” — and by forcefully denouncing LBJ’s “war on poverty,” which he described as the most “expensive boondoggle” of all.
The younger Collins didn’t experience anything quite that dramatic or mean-spirited during his own Senate race in 2006.
But his father’s name often came up during his short-lived campaign.
The driven and passionate Democrat-turned-Republican personally invoked his father’s memory — a blast from the past for some of Florida’s aging African-American voters — when addressing the Orange County branch of the NAACP and the Metropolitan Orlando Urban League, reminding both groups in a three-minute speech of how his father courageously guided the state through the difficult days of integration.
On another occasion, the younger Collins recounted the moment his father found out that he had switched parties nearly twenty years earlier, telling Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times in an interview a few months before the primary that the former governor, who died in 1991, was absolutely livid when he discovered that his namesake had become a registered Republican.
“That phone just about melted in my hand,” said Collins, chuckling as he fondly recalled his father’s negative reaction. “He really, really gave me hell.” When the younger Collins, a devoted admirer of Ronald Reagan, tried to explain to his father that after thirty years the Democratic Party had essentially abandoned him — and many other lifelong Democrats — the former governor told him that he should have stayed in the party and fought to make it right.
“That’s the way he was,” said the younger Collins.
Though after switching parties he had briefly considered running for Lawton Chiles’ U.S. Senate seat in 1988 — a seat narrowly captured by Republican Connie Mack after the popular “Walkin’ Lawton” decided not to seek reelection — his 2006 campaign against Katherine Harris, whom he personally considered unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate, was the former rear admiral’s only foray into elective politics.
He entered the race just as state and national Republicans were scrambling to find an alternative to the woman once dubbed “Cruella De Vil.”
Everybody from Vice President Dick Cheney to Gov. Jeb Bush, who openly expressed doubts about Harris’ candidacy and tried repeatedly to lure Florida House Speaker Allan Bense into the race, worked around the clock to recruit an alternative to Katherine Harris, arguably the party’s most polarizing figure. and whose sputtering campaign initially suffered from heavy staff turnover, anemic fundraising and faint enthusiasm from the party’s rank and file.
Her campaign was a disaster. “Quite honestly,” quipped a Republican pollster at the time, “the Titanic was in better condition.”
That was putting it mildly.
Among other things, the controversial congresswoman was linked to corrupt defense contractor Mitchell Wade, the former CEO of MZM Inc., who had pleaded guilty to four criminal charges and had reportedly lavished Harris with questionable campaign contributions and expensive dinners — revelations that deeply worried party leaders.
“Every time I turned over a rock, I found out something I didn’t want to know,” said Ed Rollins, a former Reagan aide who was Harris’ chief adviser until he abruptly left the campaign in March.
Somewhere along the way, the search for a viable alternative went awry, resulting in a disastrous political circus with no fewer than three candidates legitimately claiming the anti-Harris mantle.
Vice President Cheney reportedly encouraged Peter Monroe, a wealthy Pinellas County developer who had served on the oversight board of the Resolution Trust Corporation during the Savings & Loan scandal in the early 1990s, to challenge Harris in the primary. The two were old friends dating back to the Ford Administration and it was rumored that Monroe might spend up to $5 million of his own money on the race.
White House political guru Karl Rove also got involved, reportedly recruiting Will McBride, a wealthy Orlando attorney whose father-in-law — a close friend of Rove’s —owned more than 100 evangelical Christian radio stations.
Efforts to persuade two of Harris’s three challengers to drop out failed miserably.
The Longboat Key congresswoman, the subject of lingering ridicule stemming from the controversial 36-day Florida presidential election recount in 2000, couldn’t have been more pleased. She realized the three little-known latecomers virtually guaranteed her nomination.
Sen. Nelson, convinced that he would clobber Harris in the general election, was probably even more delighted.
Given that the anti-Harris vote was likely to be split three ways, the white-haired Collins certainly had his work cut out for him.
At the outset, the fifth-generation Floridian had no staff and had to do virtually everything himself, including answering all of the campaign’s telephone and e-mail inquiries, preparing a brochure, scheduling events and responding to endless questionnaires from political and civic groups. He even stuffed his own envelopes.
“I haven’t been visible up to this point at all largely because I’ve been putting all of this stuff together myself,” apologetically explained the trim and distinguished-looking candidate who once served as commander of a coastal minesweeper and later commanded various Navy Reserve submarine units..
For the 71-year-old Collins, who waited until the last minute to declare his candidacy, literally filing his paperwork an hour and a half before the qualifying deadline, it turned out be a pretty lonely affair.
In fact, only one supporter showed up at an event at the Punta Gorda Isles civic center in mid-July, some six weeks before the September primary. Coincidentally, that supporter happened to be one of Collins’ classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Hello Roger. Good to see you,” Collins said, entering the civic center about twenty minutes after the event was scheduled to start. “This place is hard to find.”
“Well,” said the lone attendee while shaking the candidate’s hand, “unfortunately, nobody else has been able to find it either.”
The retired two-star admiral characteristically shrugged it off, calling the dismal turnout a minor “tactical problem” and promising that his campaign would be better prepared at future events.
Sometimes a famous name simply isn’t enough. Major statewide campaigns require organization, plenty of ground troops, and oodles and oodles of money — none of which Collins possessed. It’s a painful lesson that Buddy Chiles, the son of another widely-revered governor, is likely to learn this fall.
Collins’ advertising campaign — and his largest expenditure — was limited to a 60-second radio spot introducing the retired admiral to Florida voters.
More than two months after entering the contest he could still count on one hand the number of times he had campaigned outside the Tampa Bay area. Only occasionally had he and Jane, his wife of forty-seven years, hopped into their Jeep Cherokee, adorned with “Collins-for-U.S. Senate” bumper stickers, for a campaign trip outside the region.
A couple of those excursions brought him to Jacksonville.
His campaign headquarters was a spare bedroom in his Tampa home, where a handful of friends manned the phones and handled the mail. “If we get through the primary we’ll probably get a space of our own,” he said.
He designed his own brochures with the help of a computer-savvy friend, and one of his neighbor’s served as the webmaster of his campaign web site.
But he also had plenty of profound things to say.
“We tend to evaluate members of Congress based upon how successful they are in bringing home the bacon,” he told the Times-Union’s editorial board. “That’s a terrible way for us to select them and a terrible way for us to re-elect them.”
Given his late start, the retired Naval reservist-turned-politician didn’t harbor any illusions about his chances. “It’s a daunting task. I realize that, but I think you never know how far you can go unless you try to go too far,” said Collins, who rarely backed away from a difficult challenge — a trait inherited from his father.
With his lanky 6’3” frame, chiseled features and flowing white hair, Collins looked and sounded like a Senator — and three of Florida’s largest newspapers apparently agreed, believing that he was ideally suited to take on Bill Nelson in November.
Despite the barebones nature of his campaign, the Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy. So, too, did the Gainesville Sun and the Naples Daily News. He also gained a partial endorsement from the Florida Times-Union, which argued that both Collins and Monroe were solid choices.
Claiming that Collins trumped the dramatic and erratic Harris, the widely-read Tampa Tribune said that the former Naval admiral was “tired of the polarized atmosphere that prevents Congress from making progress for the nation” and had demonstrated a much-needed willingness to work both sides of the aisle.
The Miami Herald called him “the most credible choice.”
There’s little doubt that he would have brought a heavy dose of dignity — and civility — to the badly-divided Senate.
Promising to serve only one term, Collins campaigned on the traditionally conservative issues of national security, immigration reform and opposition to the growing national debt.
He believed the threat of terrorism was still uppermost in the minds of most Americans. “There are millions of people out there, Islamic fundamentalists, that want us dead,” he asserted. “I just feel down in my bones that our survival’s at stake, and I’m the only candidate out there that has a military background.”
Fiercely independent, however, he deviated from Republican orthodoxy on several other hot-button issues. He was pro-choice and wanted to relax the Cuban embargo, based on certain human rights and property rights concessions. He also favored a national internship program for state and federal agencies to encourage young people to become involved in public service.
Vastly outspent by his rivals, the retired admiral finished a distant third, garnering 146,712 votes, or 15.3 percent. As expected, Katherine Harris won the primary easily, only to be slaughtered by Nelson in November.
Collins, who was later appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to serve as executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, never regretted running for the U.S. Senate. “He knew it was a long shot,” said LeRoy Collins III, his oldest son. “He just felt like he should say what he needed to say.”
“He was a great choice and would have been an outstanding U.S. Senator,” sighed a mournful Guetzloe, who deeply admired the admiral’s family and had actively supported his long-shot candidacy.