Common Cause Florida
A Personal Memoir of the Early Years
By Peter Butzin, Executive Director, 1976-1982
Common Cause’s organization in Florida actually began in Colorado in about 1972, two years after John Gardner founded “a citizen’s lobby” primarily focused on Congress.
Craig Barnes, a volunteer in Colorado, urged Mr. Gardner and the earliest leadership of Common Cause to realize that state legislatures would benefit as much as Congress from Common Cause reforms. Like Colorado, volunteer activists within Florida’s burgeoning membership, organized by congressional districts as early as 1973, soon established a state board that championed the national organization’s issues of open government, ethics and campaign finance reform at the state level.
Esther Frieden, a homemaking wife of a chemistry Professor at Florida State University, worked essentially full time as a volunteer lobbyist and state board chairperson in those early years. She shepherded through the Florida Legislature its first ethics code (Chapter 112) and many elections reforms (Chapter 106).
In 1976, working in coalition, Common Cause volunteers actively solicited signatures supporting Florida’s first, successful petition initiative that, through the leadership of Gov. Reuben Askew, added the Sunshine Amendment to Florida’s constitution. The amendment mandated financial disclosure by public officials, imposed sweeping ethics reforms, and created the Florida Commission on Ethics. It was our first, big win.
That was the same year that I came on board as Florida Common Cause’s first executive director.
In addition to working for passage of the Sunshine Amendment, I primarily worked to support the Equal Rights Amendment, at a time when Florida was destined to be one of the last of the three-quarters of states required to add the amendment to the United States Constitution. Alas, after a hard fight, we lost by hair in the Florida Senate.
Common Cause Florida was a power to be reckoned with in the late 1970’s. We were well-organized in two-thirds of Florida’s then-15 congressional districts. The mark of effective congressional district organizations included regular meetings and telephone chains organized to quickly encourage the state’s roughly 14,000 dues-paying members to quickly write and call member of Congress in support of our issues. That was back in the days when a “member” was defined as a household that contributed at least $50 for basic membership.
During the 60-day regular Spring legislative session, I spent 60- and 70-hour work weeks primarily lobbying for ethics, elections, campaign finance and redistricting reform, and protecting Florida’s open meetings/open records laws. The rest of the year, I traveled the state, organizing members to actively promote Common Cause’s agenda. All the time, I interfaced with a state-wide media that seemed eager to have the perspective of a relatively rare, “good government” organization that had cut its teeth in the Watergate years.
In those early days, when Common Cause could make a difference in Congress, I also supported our national agenda. One project took me deep into Rep. Bob Sykes 1st Congressional District. CBS’s 60 Minutes had reported a sweeping expose that implicated the powerful congressman in a number of scandals. He was so popular in his district that I remember removing my Common Cause bumper sticker before venturing across the Apalachee River. Nevertheless, the press in his district, along with a few courageous members, welcomed Common Cause’s message that no person is above the law. Sykes left office shortly thereafter.
During this time, Common Cause was one of the few “public interest” lobbying groups. We often worked in coalition with the League of Women Voters, but there were few other public interest organizations.
We had a two-room office suite in the Petroleum Building, a bland, 1950’s (maybe even 1940’s) horseshoe shaped, two-story building a block west of the new Capitol building (now the southwestern corner of Kleman Plaza). The Capital Press Corps labeled us the “FOG” building, as in “Forces of Good”. Among others, it housed the ACLU, the Florida Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Florida Legal Services, and the Clearinghouse Against the Death Penalty. I used to walk the halls, picking up lobbying tips and sharing experiences among like-minded activists. The experiences provided needed support after spending hours being treated as anathema by lobbyists for special economic interests, especially Associated Industries, and most of the conservative legislators.
From the founding of the state organization until well into the early 1990’s, the Legislature was roughly 65% Democrat and 35% Republican. Both parties proved to be a hard sell for Common Cause issues.
Adhering to John Gardner’s philosophy of “no permanent friends; no permanent enemies; always permanent issues”, we often found common cause with Republicans, who were on the outs of power and sometimes in agreement with our agenda on election reform, and especially redistricting reform.
As we prepared to champion anti-gerrymandering reform in the late 1970’s, Common Cause Florida used the first state Constitutional Revision Commission in 1978 to champion a sweeping reapportionment reform package that called for redistricting by a bi-partisan commission, strict population and anti-gerrymandering standards and single-member districts. While our proposal passed the Revision Commission, it failed the 1978 ballot, when all the Commission’s proposals went down to defeat as part of a backlash to a pro-casino-gambling petition initiative.
However, a couple of years later, we successfully began to make our mark for redistricting reform, and in the 1982 session won a fight for single member districts and drafted district plans that were partially adopted by the Florida Legislature. We also successfully sued the Florida Senate to ensure that all Senate seats would be up for election in the first year after the redistricting following the 1980 decennial census. Bill Jones worked as an organizer during this period, and became Executive Director a few years later.
In the redistricting battles, our nemesis in the Senate, the powerful Dempsey Barron, once called out Common Cause: “What is this interloping organization that thinks it has the right to interfere with our districts?” At one point, he and another Senator challenged us for our membership list, walked into our modest office two blocks from the Capitol, wrote out their membership checks, and said, “So there. You can no longer say that you speak for all your members!”
In addition to our successful efforts to implement the Sunshine Amendment, elections and re-districting reform, Common Cause Florida helped pass “Sunset Laws” aimed at professional regulations that did more to protect professions against competition than to serve the public interest.
I remember appearing before a legislative professional regulatory committee in which the head of the state’s architectural board was also the head of the state’s professional architect’s association. Such blatant conflicts of interest were typical.
Our work had mixed results, but in the end,we felt victorious in reminding legislators and the public that professional regulation should focus on protecting the public’s health, safety and well being, and not protecting the livelihoods of professionals from competition.
Alas, the “Sunset Laws” didn’t survive a single generation, but they provided an opportunity to educate the public and reveal a process that clearly favors special economic interests.
In response to the Energy Crisis that plagued the late 1970’s, Common Cause Florida also worked to reform the state’s regulated utilities, particularly electric generation and distribution companies.
Our efforts were two-pronged. First, as the Public Service Commission was transitioning from an elected to an appointed Commission, we promoted reforms to make the process more transparent and have the commission operate more as a quasi-judicial body rather than a shill for regulated industries.
Second, we encouraged the commission to promote energy conservation and efficiency as the best alternative to the high capital and interest costs associated with creating new generating plants.
We had limited but notable victories on both fronts. While the Legislature not surprisingly rejected most of our process reform proposals, a majority of the commissioners proved responsive by implementing reforms through the commission’s rule-making authority. A large part of our success resulted from appointments of qualified and reform-minded commissioners from the Askew and Graham administrations. That era has been labeled “The Golden Age in Florida Government”.
While our advocacy for policies promoting energy conservation was not immediately rewarded, economic factors eventually ensured that both the commission, and the electric utilities, understand that energy conservation was a far better alternative to building fossil-fueled and nuclear central generating capacity.
I remember a rate case in the early 80’s in which we intervened, without the benefit of legal counsel or expert witnesses. I discovered an academic paper, prepared by a Harvard graduate student, that provided the basis for our case supporting energy conservation. Since we had no legal budget, I presented the paper as an “expert witness,” though my credentials consisted of little more than having taken two introductory economics courses as an undergraduate. But I understood the Harvard graduate’s paper and took the gamble that, in the absence of a public interest representative, my testimony might be accepted.
I had never before experienced cross-examination. The first four hours “on the stand” consisted of powerful, well-paid attorneys for the electric utilities tearing into my obvious lack of credentials. Finally, to his credit, the chairman of the commission, Joe Cresse, basically said, “Enough. Let’s hear what this young man has to say. We might learn something”.
I recall that the utilities mostly got their rate increase, which included capitalization for new power plants; but, to my knowledge, it was the first time that an upstart organization successfully brought an argument for energy conservation into the conversation.
During my years at Common Cause, we were indeed “a citizen’s lobby”, in the spirit of our founder, John Gardner. We were primarily an organization of public-spirited volunteers. As one of only two paid staff members (the other was an administrative assistant), my job was to listen to, organize and empower our members to carry a limited dossier of public-spirited issues to Congresspersons, state legislators, the Governor and the Secretary of State.
I spent long days at the Capitol during the 60-day regular legislative sessions and occasional special sessions. The rest of the year, I traveled the state extensively, giving speeches and meeting with volunteers in an attempt to organize Common Cause membership, phone chains and “citizen lobbyists” in as many of the 15 congressional districts as possible.
I would be remiss if I failed to point out that the true heroes of those early years were volunteers who served as chairpersons of our congressional district organizations and members of our state governing board.
After almost 40 years, my memory cannot do justice to naming them all, but several come to mind.
I have already mentioned Esther Frieden, who, more than anyone in the state, laid the foundation for Florida’s ethics and elections laws.
Edna Warsowe was a tireless champion of democratic institutions and values, which she passionately promoted on behalf of Common Cause. She was a dynamic speaker, organized our highly effective organization in Broward County, and served for many years on both the state and national boards.
Joe Shutt, a septuagenarian with the energy of a teenager, single-handedly recruited almost a thousand new members for the organization.
Bud and Dorothy Wylie worked in tandem on the state board and built our organization in Clearwater. A retired photojournalist for the Associated Press, Bud edited “Florida Frontline”, a quarterly tabloid that stirred volunteers to activism and reported on our victories and near-misses. Dorothy served for many years as state chair.
During election years, our state organizations were encouraged to ask candidates to state their positions on Common Cause issues. One year, we tried to include the responses in “Florida Frontline”. Well before the introduction of desktop publishing, we found ourselves positioning little “yes’s” and “noes” on a spreadsheet that included our questions and the names of candidates. Someone ended up bumping the mock-up. The responses blew everywhere. Although we did our best to fix the resulting mayhem, we ended up making mistakes and hearing from candidates whose responses were miss-reported. It was the last year we asked candidates for their position on our issues.
Myrtle Levinson was the feisty volunteer who organized Common Cause in the 14th Congressional District, represented during much of the time by Claude Pepper. (I remember once when Myrtle was the passenger in my 1980, two-gear, Honda Civic and I somehow ended up making an illegal U-Turn on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Myrtle said, “Don’t worry, you have an out-of-state license plate.” Myrtle regarded a Leon County, FL plate as being from somewhere in South Georgia.)
Louise Freeman served for years on the board as our treasurer, back in the days when state organizations had their own checking accounts, were responsible for keeping financial records, and engaged in major fundraising activities.
Jerry Cope not only was a highly effective and dynamic state chair, but also represented Common Cause as its pro bono counsel in several legal challenges. Al Hadeed, another outstanding, public-spirited lawyer, also represented Common Cause in several successful cases.
Common Cause volunteers were inspiring. At the time, I had two very young daughters. When I asked our volunteers, many of whom were retired, why they spent their Golden Years volunteering for Common Cause, they often quickly responded that they were doing it to protect democratic institutions for their children and grandchildren. Now that my own children are adults, and my young grandchildren face the greatest challenges to those institutions in any of our lifetimes, I can understand the responses from volunteers when I was fortunate to serve as Florida’s first executive director.
1974: Volunteers meet to establish Common Cause Florida
1975: First state board is organized
1976: First Executive Director is hired; Sunshine Amendment passes; despite strong support, the Equal Rights Amendment is narrowly defeated in the Florida Senate.
1977: Sunshine Amendment implemented.
1978: Common Cause passes its sweeping redistricting reform package through the Constitution Revision Commission. All amendments are rejected by Florida’s voters.
1979: Common Causes passes rules reforms through the Public Service Commission
1980: Common Cause begin its two-year effort on behalf of single-member legislative
districts, and drafts model plans which influence plans produced by the Legislature.
1982: Common Cause successfully sues the Florida Senate regarding redistricting.