Former Gov. Claude Kirk, a larger-than-life political outsider who made history when he was elected governor of Florida as a Republican in 1966, pushed for a new state constitution and helped begin a GOP rise in the state, has died.
Kirk, who was 85, died Wednesday at home in West Palm Beach, a statement from his family said.
He was a one-term governor ousted by the election of Democrat Reubin Askew in 1970, and was credited with ushering in a new ethic of conservation and environmental stewardship after a century in which Florida was looked at as a swamp to be filled in.
Kirk, a former Democrat who led a “Democrats for Nixon” effort in 1960 before changing parties, fought as governor with a Democratic Legislature, pushed unsuccessfully to renew the death penalty and was widely credited with opening up Florida state government to fresh faces after years of domination by “pork chopper” legislators from the Panhandle and their political followers.
He may have been best known for his flamboyant personality, out-spoken nature and quirky sense of humor. His nickname during his tenure was “Claudius Maximus.”
Kirk got married while he was governor, after having shown up at his inauguration with his future wife, Erika Mattfeld. Asked by reporters who the lady accompanying him was, Kirk wouldn’t say, identifying her only as “Madame X.”
Later in life, long after he left the governor’s office, Kirk, by then a mischievous elder statesman, said he wanted state rules changed so he could be buried at the Capitol. They weren’t.
“Being buried up there would be a good idea, so I can keep an eye on them,” Kirk said a few years ago in a newspaper interview.
During his campaign in 1966, Kirk visited prisoners at the state prison and shook their hands. Then, Kirk casually let them know that if he were elected, he would be signing death warrants for some of them, though it wasn’t until after he left office that executions were resumed after a national moratorium.
Born in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1926, Kirk was an enlisted man who became an officer in the Marine Corps during World War II, and later, after getting a law degree, returned to the service to fight in the Korean War as an infantry leader.
After military service, Kirk started in business with $408 in his pocket, selling building supplies and insurance in Jacksonville and founding the company that would eventually become American Heritage Life Insurance.
After working for Nixon, Kirk sought office himself, switching his party affiliation to the GOP and running unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate against Spessard Holland in 1964.
In 1966, Democratic incumbent Gov. Haydon Burns lost in the Democratic primary to Miami Mayor Robert King High, opening the door to Kirk with some voters suspicious of the liberal Miami candidate at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Kirk was the first Republican elected governor of Florida since 1872 during reconstruction, and he was, along with Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, also elected in 1966, one of the first two Republican governors to be elected to run a former Confederate state in the 20th century.
According to the book “The Transformation of Southern Politics,” by Jack Bass and Walter De Vries, the same flamboyance that made Kirk successful in politics was also part of what kept him from getting re-elected. There were reports of lavish parties at the Governor’s Mansion during his tenure and he reportedly hired a Madison Ave. public relations firm with state money to boost his profile for possible future higher office, as he was mentioned as a possible running mate for Nixon in 1968.
His tenure was also marked by a widespread teacher’s strike and Kirk responded by going to California’s Disneyland.
“He was brash, rude, domineering, inventive, determined and marvelously good-humored,” said Nathaniel Reed, who worked for Kirk.
Environmentalists – of which Reed, who served in the Nixon administration, is one - remembered Kirk fondly for ushering in a new era of conservation, and particularly attention to the Everglades and killing a proposed cross-state barge canal.
“He never wavered in his determination to change Florida’s long legacy of what Philip Wiley described as Florida, ‘the polluted paradise,’” Reed said in a statement Wednesday after Kirk’s death.
“Kirk could be very stubborn, but he could be convinced to change his mind. For instance, he once supported the cross-state barge canal and the Big Cypress jetport and the development of what is now Biscayne National Park. But when presented with the facts of environmental damage each project would create, he turned and became an ardent and effective opponent of all boondoggles,” said Reed.
Kirk also may have begun the rise of the Republican Party in Florida after a century of dormancy. While Nixon won the state three times, the party was largely irrelevant here until Kirk’s time. The never-humble Kirk took credit for the success of later GOP politicians in a 2002 interview with The Palm Beach Post.
“They are all the children of my loins,” Kirk said.
“He will be remembered as Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and a strong, outspoken and capable leader for our state during an era of immense change in our country,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement. “Along with all Floridians, we send our condolences to his wife Erika and their entire family. Our prayers are with them during this challenging time.”
Scott will order flags to fly at half-staff on the day of Kirk’s funeral.
U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw issued a statement about Kirk, his father-in-law. Crenshaw is married to Kirk’s daughter, Kitty Crenshaw, of Jacksonville.
“Claude Kirk was probably the most charismatic person I ever met. He could be hysterically funny and fearlessly bold, and he championed the environment, education, and diversity long before those issues were fashionable. He carried a bigger-than-life personality that often overshadowed his true genius and the lasting and positive changes he brought to the state of Florida. It is an honor to be his son-in-law,” said Crenshaw.
“He was a noble veteran of two wars and a champion of the Republican Party,” said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry. “Although Florida has lost another great Republican leader today, the memory and legacy of his service will not be forgotten.”
Longtime Jacksonville attorney Jim Rinaman offered some memories of Kirk.
“He was very flamboyant. When I was in the National Guard (Kirk) came down on several occasions during summer training at Camp Blanding. Those days, most of our local National Guard people trained at Camp Blanding in the summer,” he said.
“Governors had not typically come very much, but Claude came whenever there was a large unit down there, and he had designed his own uniform. He wore beautiful brown English riding boots and these khaki pants with a kind of a bloomer on the side. He then wore a regular military camouflage shirt with a fancy belt with a big gold buckle. He had a patch or two on the shirt that had to do with Florida and the Florida National Guard. He had a baseball cap with CINC on it, which stood for Commander in Chief, and he really thought that was great. He would come down and make speeches.
“He had a plan where he announced we needed to have a border restriction, where nobody could come to Florida for more than six months unless they made more than $25,000 a year, which was a good amount of money in those days. Nobody bought that,” Rinaman said.
In addition to wife Erika, Kirk is survived by his children Sarah, Katherine, William, Frank, Adriana, Claudia and Erik. He leaves behind 14 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.
Daily Record staff contributed to this report