Red and our right to know

J. Emory “Red” Cross was a maverick in the Florida Legislature who believed that his constituents ought to know what their government was doing in their names.

(I wrote this article for the current edition of FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities)

What’s in a name?

If you had asked J. Emory Cross that question in 1948, he would have said that name recognition counts for a lot.

Cross, Georgia native turned Marianna car salesman turned Gainesville lawyer was running for state prosecutor against two rivals from well-known local families. At campaign functions they liked to brag about just how familiar their names were.

“That was sort of getting to me so finally I began to say,’now you are talking about familiarity of names?’ I believe mine was more familiar than either one of theirs,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with the University of Florida’s Oral History Program.

“My name is Red Cross.

“That might have won me the election.”

Whether it did or not, Red Cross stuck. He of the crimson hair, “ice cream” tropical suits and a penchant for tough causes.

And Red wasn’t even his first nickname. When he ran for student body president at the University of Florida in 1945 – winning by just 15 votes – they jokingly called him “Landslide.”

But the most enduring moniker Cross acquired during a stellar political career was no joke:

Father of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

It took him a decade to do it, beginning in 1957 when he was in the state house. But in his dogged determination to mandate public meetings, Cross more than anyone insured that, in Florida, the people’s business would be done in sight of and with participation from the people.

And getting that done was a lonely business. “I never had a co-introducer on it in all the times that I introduced it,” Pepper would later say of the legislation that finally passed in 1967, when he was a state senate.

In terms of having a lasting impact on everyday lives, J. Emory “Red” Cross may be the most consequential politician that many Floridians have never heard of. If you ever attended a city zoning board hearing to protect your property rights, or weighed in on your neighborhood school’s redistricting, you can thank Red Cross for that right.

Half a century after its passage the Sunshine Law still obliges school board members, city and county commissioners and state officials to hold open meetings and listen to public comments before making decisions.

And it should surprise no one that it is newspeople – who regularly attend public meetings and report on their outcomes – who are most likely to remember and appreciate Red Cross’ legacy.

“There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state,” Craig Pittman, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of “Oh, Florida!” has written.

“Think of how very different our lives would be without the Sunshine Law, and not just here but also others states that have copied us,” Pittman says. “He saw what was happening outside the public view and came up with this thing that we all take for granted today.”

And therein hangs a tale worth telling.

Red Cross, who died in 2004 at the age of 90, was a fixture in north Florida politics through the 1950s and ’60s. First as prosecutor then state representative and senator and, finally, Alachua County judge. And it’s fair to say that he made an impression on folks.

“He always wore white. White suit, white tie, white shoes, white socks,” recalled Gainesville attorney Jonathan Wershow, whose father lost a legislative race to Cross. “I thought he was an excellent politician but from a political standpoint he was a lot more liberal than the area around him.”

Which is to say that Cross was one of those rarest of political animals – the Southern Progressive. Cut from quite the same mold as Florida’s other “Red,” Claude Pepper, and Lawton Chiles, who served with Cross in the legislature and went on to champion the federal version Florida’s Sunshine Law in the U.S. Senate.

“Red was a very colorful, classic Southern good old boy,” recalls Jean Chance, who began teaching journalism at UF in 1956 and often invited Cross to speak to her students. “It was the day of the Pork Choppers but he was smart enough as a lawyer to know how to compromise. He knew how to count the votes and he knew he was in a college town.”

Indeed, Cross himself would admit that key to his political longevity was his liberal college town constituency, which often put him at odds with the rural lawmakers who ran the state well into second half of the 20th century.

“I had a lot of enemies in the legislature,” he said during that 1978 UF interview “but I represented a county that they did not have any strength with. Alachua County was peculiar in that regard.”

How peculiar? Well, consider that Gainesville was the only Florida city that George McGovern carried in 1972.

And it would be short-changing the man’s legacy to imagine that open government was his sole contribution.

Cross himself said his proudest achievement was bringing a medical school to the University of Florida, in 1955. Working with then-Rep. Ralph Turlington and state Sen. William Shands, Cross drove the length of the state to secure legislative votes for the initiative.

“I had broken my arm and had a cast up to my shoulder,” he recalled. “I drove with my left hand from Pensacola to Key West.”

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Cross helped funnel millions of dollars to Florida’s fledgling community college system. He introduced the bill that created Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville (after heated fight with Sen. Charlie Johns, who wanted it in Starke). He also championed better mental health screening and treatment.

Cross began his push for Government In The Sunshine shortly after he was elected to the House, and after meeting with then-UF journalism dean Rae O Weimer and Buddy Davis, Pulitizer Prize winning editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

The ability of elected officials to make decisions in secret had long bothered Cross.

When I-75 was in the planning stage, he once told the Gainesville Sun, “I had a very good friend who was on the road board helping his buddies” buy up land along its future path. “It just wasn’t right.”

Cross said in his oral history interview “I always believed the people had a right to know about what the public officials were doing and how their money was spent.”

That notion of a public right to know didn’t go over well with many lawmakers. Cross remembered one Chiefland representative, Edder Usher, who argued that “down in Levy County we are not for open meetings.”

“And his newspapers all over Levy County wrote editorials against him,” Cross said. “He was sorry he said that.”

What ultimately paved the way for passage of the Sunshine Law was a landmark court-ordered reapportionment that ended the reign of the pork choppers and ushered in new state leadership. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, signed the bill into law.

Ironically, it was that same reapportionment that ended Cross’ legislative career. After his district was redrawn to include portions of several rural counties, Cross lost his seat to Gainesville oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders.

“Saunders was a handsome businessman and the right people got behind him and funded his campaign,” Jean Chance said. “Red didn’t keep up with his times.”

Fifty two years after its passage, Cross’s Sunshine Law remains durable but vulnerable to changing times. Barbara Peterson, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said “there are far fewer exemptions to our right of access (meetings) than to public records. Of 1,100-plus exemptions, maybe 10 to 15 percent have been to Sunshine Law and the remainder to the Public Records Law.”

Which is not to say that the public’s right to know isn’t threatened by fast-changing technology. Increased used of email, text messaging, social media and other forms of instant communication are challenging the very meaning of what exactly constitutes a public meeting or record.

Sandra F. Chance, retired UF journalism professor and co-author of a history of Florida’s open government laws, said “technology is fast outpacing the law’s ability to keep up. It allows us to do more things more remotely, but a lot of people still don’t have access to computers.”

In the end, she cautions, open government “is dependent on the commitment by citizens to protect their democracy and demand access to information. And if the public isn’t paying attention these laws are going to disappear.”

We need a good cleaning

On Tuesday I washed my hands of the Presidential Primary and the Gainesville City Commission elections.

Actually, I did it twice.

Once before I marked my ballot and once immediately after.

My polling place is in a church, but they were apparently fresh out of holy water.

So we all pumped Purell hand sanitizer instead.

This is the way we live our lives now. And while the reason we’re all washing, washing, washing, washing our hands is for fear of the virus, I experienced a visceral joy in ritualistically washing my hands over the candidates of my choice.

I can’t wait to do it again on August 18, whether or not we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

And especially on Nov. 3.

That’s when we all must be resolved to wash a whole bunch of rascals, scoundrels and scallywags right out of our public institutions.

From the White House to the state house.

Don’t look now but our system of representative democracy is on life support.

It’s become a filthy business in this Citizens United gilded age of legislating for, of and by lobbyists.

They who comfort the 1 percent and stick us with the bill have got to go.

And, listen, all the Purell in the world won’t make them come clean.

Only we can do that by voting like America sorely needs a thorough house cleaning.

We are the cure.

So let’s keep washing our hands as we get about putting this dirty business right.

Sympathy for the Donald

With apologies to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
Been around for a long, long time
Stole many a man’s soul to waste
I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Has his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name.
Cause what’s confusing you is just the

Nature of my game.



I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was time for a change
I killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank, held a general’s rank
When the blitzkreig raged and the bodies stank
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name.
Cause what’s puzzling you is just the
Nature of my game
I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the Gods they made
I shouted out
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all
It was you and me
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I’m in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, um yeah
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, um yeah
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, um mean it, get down
Woo, who
Oh yeah, get on down
Oh yeah
Oh yeah!
Tell me baby, what’s my name
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
Tell me baby, what’s my name
I tell you one time, you’re to blame
Ooo, who
Ooo, who
Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who

Oh, yeah

The forever war

Listen, Donald Trump’s war on Iran could save hundreds of American lives. Maybe thousands.

But not against acts reprisal or terrorism. That blood letting is likely to be terrible, and we will live to regret our strategy of promiscuous drone warfare.

But it could save lives back here on the home front.

How? Because if things really go sideways with Iran, the price of oil will likely skyrocket.

Cheap gas is killing us, and we’ve been drunk on the stuff for years.

About 40,000 Americans were slaughtered in traffic last year alone. And it is a fact that the less we pay for gas the more we drive. And the more we drive the more likely we are to kill each other.

“During hard times, or when gas prices surge, people drive less: some shift to cheaper travel modes, some just stay home,” the online news service CityLab observes. “One predictable and well-documented result of big spikes in gas prices is fewer car crashes…”

Not to mention that less driving means less climate-changing carbon emissions spewing into the atmosphere.

The Union of Concerned Scientists points out: “Our personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming…cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas.”

We’ve been fighting this forever war in the Mideast for what seems like forever now – squandering our national treasure and throwing away young American lives to keep the oil spigots flowing. It’s not honor, but slavishness that makes the bloody Saudi regime our best pal. We have pledged our allegiance to Aramco.

What does “patriotism” even mean in war time these days? The Bush administration told us to go shopping while it knocked off Iraq. And thanks to all the oil we “liberated,” too many of us went shopping for gas guzzling SUVs and pickups.

That’s not patriotism. That’s self-indulgence.

To end the forever war, the ultimate act of patriotism would be to drive less, drive smaller and drive slower. Doing so would simultaneously save lives and help stave off climate change.

What might a rational homeland security strategy look like in a post-forever war America? Well, instead of spending billions on bigger highways we would be investing in transit…and then make it free as an incentive to not drive.

Rather than subsidizing suburban sprawl – as we’ve done since World War II – we would instead redesign our cities to be more walkable and bikable. Traffic calming by design saves gas and makes us more free to get around.

Here on the home front, pedestrian deaths in cities like New York and Denver are on the rise. This despite the adoption of much-touted “Vision Zero” policies.

Does that mean Vision Zero doesn’t work? No, in Norway, Oslo saw just one traffic fatality last year, thanks to a Vision Zero plan that takes itself seriously.

“The great tragedy of the American postwar development pattern is that we’ve built a world where a productive life is only possible if we do our daily travel at truly crazy, historically unprecedented speeds,” argues strongtowns.org. “These are speeds that make doing everything by car (with the attendant risk of injury or death, to yourself or others) the unavoidable ante to participating productively in society.”

To end the forever war we need to stop playing Aramco’s game and resolve to make America a civilization that doesn’t run on cheap gas.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.

Suburban strategy 101

On paper, state Sen. Keith Perry and Rep. Chuck Clemons represent Gainesville. But for all practical purposes their job is to contain the city, not see to the best interests of its residents.

Perry and Clemons are classic suburban Republicans. Gainesville is an island of blue in an otherwise north Florida sea of red and is treated accordingly in Tallahassee.

It was a slap to the face of our “representatives” when city voters decisively rejected their scheme to remove Gainesville Regional Utilities from city commission control. So now they’re back with still more anti-city devilment: Subjecting Gainesville to a legislative “audit” just to make sure it isn’t being run by a bunch of crooks.

You might think this is being done out of political spite. But perhaps there is a method to this continuing legislative maliciousness against all things Gainesville.

Maybe its just another cog in the GOP’s suburban strategy machine.

Don’t look now but the Republicans are losing the suburbs. Have been ever since Trump took office. Practically every election since then has reflected an erosion of GOP strength outside cities. It is why Republicans lost control of the House in 2018. And the erosion continues in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

“Republican support in the suburbs has basically collapsed under Trump,” Republican strategist Alex Conant told the Associated Press in the wake of Democratic victories in Kentucky and Virginia. “Somehow, we need to find a way to regain our suburban support over the next year.”

The war of spite Perry and Clemons are waging against Gainesville may not help Trump. But it could benefit Clemons, who is facing a tough challenge from Gainesville Democrat Keiser Enneking.

Enneking almost beat Perry in the last election, and would have if not for some GOP-dark money chicanery. If Trump enters Florida as a wounded incumbent, down-ballot Republicans like Clemons stand to suffer from the fallout.

And make no mistake, Clemons is vulnerable. He just managed to squeak by his last challenger, Jason Haeseler. If Trump bombs in the suburbs, he could very well suck Clemons and other Republicans down with him.

And the stakes are huge for the party in 2020. After the census comes reapportionment. If Florida Republicans get too badly cut up in Trump’s shredded coattails, their ability to front-load elections in the GOP’s favor over the next decade could be jeopardized.

How better to aid Clemons’ survival than to whip up some good old-fashioned “We-Hate-Gainesville” froth among the suburbanites?

Is your commute into the city too long? Blame Gainesville liberals who would rather spend money on buses and bike paths than traffic lanes. Hey suburbanites, why should your utility dollars fund city parks, police and all the services that benefit from having a municipal-owned utility? (Answer: Because if Gainesville didn’t exist neither would its bedroom communities. Those daily commuters are driving here to work.)

This is all just part and parcel of the GOP’s larger suburban strategy. You can see it being played out every session, when dozens of bills are introduced to eat away at the home rule authority of cities. My favorite so far this year is legislation to keep GRU and other municipal owned utilities from using their revenues to fund city services.

Perry told WCJB that the bill, by West Palm Beach Republican Mike Caruso, has merit because utility-generated revenues give some cities “an unfair taxing advantage.”

Listen, Gainesville isn’t being represented. It is being scapegoated.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.

What Red Cross knew

Where’s our Red Cross when we need him?

To the extent that anybody remembers J. Emory Cross these days it is because that Gainesville-base state legislator birthed Florida’s Sunshine Law in 1967.

That is of course a fine legacy. Less well known is Red Cross’ long-running fight to tax exploiters of Florida’s natural resources.

“I found that the phosphate industry was tax free and it was producing I believe, 75 percent of all phosphate produced” in the US, Cross recalled in a 1978 UF Oral History interview. “It was polluting the air and not reclaiming any land back then. So I just felt that it was unfair to let them go free without paying some part of the tax burden.

“Of course I found out that I had jumped on a sacred cow, sure enough.”

For his trouble Cross made powerful enemies like Associated Industries and Dupont robber baron Ed Ball. “We used to kid each other up there,” he said of the lobbyists who lined up against him. “I would tell them ‘you fellows ought to cut me in. I keep you in a job.'”

Cross’ dogged campaign to impose an excise tax on mineral extraction ultimately caught up with him. “I was fortunate to survive as long as I did, sixteen years, because they fought me every time. They would put money against me every time trying to defeat me. What saved me was the well informed people” of Gainesville.

But then his university city-dominated district was sliced up to include several rural counties. Cross was defeated by oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders, who offended no special interest and enjoyed an unremarkable Senate career.

Still, a new governor named Reuben Askew finally did get that tax on phosphate, using the money to reclaim old strip mines that looked like lunar landscapes.

Red Cross’ other legacy is worth recalling only because there remain so few Florida politicians who are willing to take on the polluters that they are practically an extinct species.

Which is precisely why Nestle thinks it can pour a million gallons of Florida spring water a day into little plastic bottles and pay next to nothing for the privilege. It is why Lake Okeechobee is a giant cesspool. It’s why red tides and green algae blooms and bacteria beach closings are the new normal.

To the extent that our politicians are even willing to address water pollution they tend to do it from the wrong end – spending public money to try to clean up the mess after the fact. Stopping pollution at its source might require higher user fees or stricter regulations, which risk getting on the wrong side of Big Sugar, Associated Industries, the Chamber of Commerce and all of the others who profit from treating Florida’s water like dirt.

And, really, I don’t blame them. Politicians tend to follow the money, and the smart money banks on dirty water.

No, I blame the rest of us. We keep electing and reelecting the very people who do the bidding of the polluters. We’re stupid that way. Otherwise we would have thrown the rascals out by now.

Where’s our Red Cross when we need him? He’s probably that candidate who keeps losing to better-funded, better-connected incumbents and party hacks because we voters simply refuse to make the logical connection between dirty water and dirty politics.

That’s why we get the government we deserve. And isn’t that a dirty shame?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.

Winter’s still coming

Yes, we were all disappointed in the series finale of Game Of Thrones. Is that all there is?

No, actually, a sequel is in the works.

And it will be ugly. Republics will fall. The center will not hold. The new order will march in lock step. Tweets will go nuclear.

On the plus side the flag may still wave. We may still retain the illusion that life as we know goes on. We will continue to consume and twitter.

But all that will be an illusion. Winter really is coming. And the only thing that can hold it back is our collective will. And only if we care about our children and their children and our species and life as we know it.

The Republic is rotting before our very eyes. From the inside out.

We have just one year to stop the rot.

And if we don’t then we deserve what’s coming.

The winter of our discontent is near. Do we care?

Do we?