Marshall Harris: The Good Lives After Him

by Bernard McCormick Friday, November 13, 2009 No Comment(s)

"The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones." - Julius Ceasar

Let’s, in a small way, put the lie to the Bard’s famous eulogy. We do so by remembering the good done by Marshall Harris, who died last week at 77. Marshall who? That was the question this magazine asked back in 1974 when we profiled the Florida legislature and learned that Dade County’s Marshall Harris, unknown to the average Florida voter, was considered a giant in the state legislature. Our piece dubbed him "The Super Legislator."At a time of so much political corruption from one end of the state to the other, and with the public cynical about elected officials in general, it is well to honor a man and a time that shines bright in the history of Florida government.

I went to Tallahassee in the fair spring of 1974 with little background on Florida government. I learned a lot, much of it surprisingly good, about our representatives in the capital. And what I learned immediately was that Marshall Harris seemed universally respected. I am not sure how I got to him quickly. It was probably through Ed Trombetta, a former state rep. who was working in the Askew administration, or Van Poole, another Broward Countian who later was state GOP chairman. I recall both men being very helpful.

Harris was known for his patrician style. He was a Harvard undergrad and law school man from a wealthy background. He was supremely confident and articulate. Some called him “the Jewish William Buckley.” He was considered abrasive and sometimes arrogant. However, I recall meeting him on short notice for breakfast, and found him friendly, candid and witty, although by his own admission, weary of the work load he carried.

He was so good; colleagues looked to him to lead. When we met, he had been voted by his peers "legislator of the year" three of the last four years. After eight years in Tallahassee, he was leaving. He spoke with wry humor:

“When I tell people here that I’m leaving, they say you can’t leave, that would be a disaster. But the people at home don’t think my leaving is a disaster. How could they, when they don’t even know I’m here?”

Harris was part of a historic restructuring of Florida government. There was a coalition of young legislators who reorganized government and shifted political power from its historic North Florida base to the more populous South Florida. He was one of several Dade County Democrats of outstanding quality. Others were Bob Graham, who went on to become governor and U.S. senator, and Dick Pettigrew. They were joined by talented young men from Broward and Palm Beach counties, all Republicans. They included Joel Gustafson and George Caldwell from Broward, and Don Reed from Palm Beach.

“Re-apportionment made it all possible,” Joel Gustafson recalls. “We went in with a bunch of moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats. It was an amazing time. It was all very collegial.”Gustafson had left the legislature by 1974, but at the time he described Harris well.

“He’s one of the brightest people I’ve ever worked with. Fiscally, he’s very conservative, really tough on the budget. He could almost run as a Republican. Nobody’s been quicker to take the various departments up here to task over how they spend their money.”Some nicknamed Harris “the computer” for his ability to attach numbers quickly to proposed bills.

“If you want to be arrogant, you better be right,” said a reporter at the time. “Harris is usually right.”As much as for his talent and combative instincts, Harris was respected as utterly ethical. No one ever suspected him of tacking on a seemingly innocuous amendment to a bill, only to have it discovered months later that it exempted some crony from a tax or opened a loophole for an unforeseen business advantage. Indeed, Harris left the legislature partly because he saw the leadership reverting to the pork-choppers style that he had helped overturn.

Little recognized outside Tallahassee in his prime, Harris was consistent to the end.His death was noted in the Miami Herald, but elsewhere only a blog here and there. Joel Gustafson did not know about it until called for a comment. Forty years after they worked together, his opinion had not changed.

“We had a curious relationship,” Gustafson says. “He had a strident personality, but you had to give him his due. He was right in cases where you might not agree philosophically. He would bowl you over with reams of statistical and factual information. You deferred to him on many occasions. He could put you to sleep with details, your eyes would glass over, but he was right, so far ahead of the curve. In any legislature about 30 percent of the people do all the work. They are they ones who are made conferees, who chairman committees and are called to special meetings. Marshall was in that select group.

”When Harris left Tallahassee, he largely left politics, although he did make an unsuccessful run as Jim Smith’s running mate in the 1986 gubernatorial primary. Mostly he devoted his time to his family travel agency and to cultural affairs in Miami. Gustafson, who saw him only occasionally, wishes it had been different.

“When I saw him he was always gracious,” he says. “But I think we could have used Marshall Harris in the state for a long time as a public official.” Gustafson, who has remained active in various political capacities, adds: “When I had some issue I wish I could have talked to him. He always worked on it. There was a bond in the people who showed up in those days. We were like a big fraternity.”

A fraternity which says goodbye to an illustrious brother.

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