He was the frankest of Florida politicians, a force of nature in the Legislature, a dominant figure in the way Florida made laws and the only legislator in modern times to serve two terms as House Speaker.
“Sometimes I seem abrupt. Sometimes I’m caustic. Sometimes I insult you. Sometimes I’m, you know, the nastiest guy in the world to you, but I love you,’’ Don Tucker once told state House members.
He represented Leon, Wakulla and Franklin Counties for 22 years in the Florida Legislature, and later became an influential lobbyist for pari-mutuels and liquor wholesalers.
Former House Speaker Donald LeGrand Tucker died Tuesday September 24, after a 20-year battle against cancer. He was 84.
For most of his life he had the distinguished look and swagger you might expect from a riverboat gambler. He made friends and sometimes enemies with a passion. It was hard not to like him, even for those who sometimes disagreed with him.
“He was an extraordinary character,’’ recalled former State Rep. Barry Richard, now a Tallahassee lawyer who helped George W. Bush gain election to the White House during the 2000 election stalemate that paralyzed the country. “I considered myself fortunate to spend all of his two terms there with him. He never penalized anyone for voting against him.’’
Richard compared Tucker to Captain Kirk of Starship Enterprise fame, noting that Tucker’s mere presence on the House floor would calm any crisis in the same way Kirk’s presence resolved any problem on the fictional Starship.
“He was a commanding presence,’’ Richard said.
Tucker’s sense of humor was always with him, even toward the end of his life as he struggled to eat and talk because of mouth cancer.
When the Miami Herald described him as “a provincial agrarian,’’ Tucker explained: “I looked that up, it means a ‘redneck.’’’
He was proud of his small town origin: Tucker was elected class president at Crawfordville high school; elected governor of Boys State and was captain of his high school football team.
After high school he went to Brigham Young University and served for two years as a missionary for the Mormon Church in the northwestern United States. He returned to Florida after serving in the Army and enrolled in law school at the University of Florida. He later opened law offices in Crawfordville and Tallahassee.
His father, Luther C. Tucker, was a senator representing Wakulla County and taught his son as a teenager to support Fuller Warren for governor in 1948.
His father supported Warren and his call for a state sales tax in return for Warren’s assurance that he would do something for Carrabelle, a tiny coastal town in Wakulla County. To this day, the roads in Carrabelle are all dedicated state roads, as a result of the bargain.
As House Speaker (1974-78), Tucker pushed for procedural changes in the way the Legislature operated that remain in place today. For example, one such rule required anyone attempting to amend the state budget had to specify where the money will come from. Tucker noted that the budget was “like a pie — you can move around inside the circle, but you can’t go outside the circle.’’
He also pushed to change the rules to require three readings of each bill on three separate days, a practice that halted the habit of rushing legislation through the process without adequate consideration.
Tucker was the last speaker to preside over the House in the historic Old Capitol in Tallahassee, and the first to preside in the new Capitol that was completed in 1978.
Unlike many other rural legislators, Tucker also supported merit retention of judges and other reformist measures.
But he was often at odds with the Capitol Press Corps and sometimes a target of unflattering stories.
He also jousted with Gov. Claude Kirk Jr., the state’s first Republican governor, once leading a move to approve an “outrageous’’ budget Kirk proposed. The budget was so outrageous Kirk subsequently vetoed it.
But the animosity that arose between Tucker and reporters or other politicians was different than the atmosphere in today’s political world, where the White House and the nation’s press corps often appear to be at war.
“I’ve been investigated by, I think, every investigative bureau that they have in Florida,’’ he told the House in 1977 after being nominated by President Jimmy Carter to the Civil Aeronautics Board, a position he later gave up after opposition arose from Republican senators who accused the president of paying off a political debt because Tucker had been one of the first to endorse Carter’s candidacy.
There also was another side to the “redneck’’ from Wakulla County.
On several occasions Tucker recited poetry from memory on the House floor. On one occasion, in the old Capitol during a power failure in 1977, Tucker ordered members to remain in the chamber, and he entertained them by reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din,’’ a poem he no doubt learned while hanging out in the Crawfordville library.
David Powell, a Tallahassee lawyer who was a wire service reporter at the time, called it “one of the most surprising moments’’ and part of Tucker’s “erudite side.’’
Powell said he wasn’t a big fan of Tucker’s at the time, but on reflection believes he was “an extraordinary public servant who remembered where he came from.’’
Tucker fought cancer with everything he had, often noting that the battle had equipped him with a “titanium jaw.’’ He returned again and again to a Miami cancer clinic for repeated rounds of surgery and skin grafts. It worked for a long time, but not without a lot of pain and suffering each time the cancer recurred.
Tucker will be buried after a private family service on Thursday. A celebration of his life will be open to the public on Friday, Oct. 4 at 3 p.m. at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee.
The building, now on the Florida State University campus, was named after Tucker helped get the money approved for its construction.
Survivors include Joan, his best friend and wife of 32 years; sons Donald L. Tucker Jr. of Tallahassee, Joe Tucker, of Lehi, Utah, and Richard Tucker, of Orlando; seven grandchildren; brother Stan Tucker of Crawfordville and a number of nieces, nephews and cousins.