Jack Gordon, known as “the unabashedly liberal conscience of Florida’s State Senate,” was a unique combination of scholar, wit and idealist as well as a remarkably effective practical politician. His stands should have made him anathema to the Florida legislature of the 1970s and ’80s, still dominated by good ol’ boys: Gordon opposed the death penalty, favored the Equal Rights Amendment and legalizing marijuana, and was a longtime champion of civil rights and school integration.
Instead, Gordon was chosen majority leader by his colleagues, who respected his fairness, his civility and his legislative wiliness. That he also happened to be a successful banker gave him street cred with conservatives. Gordon was rather fond of many of the more colorful specimens of good ol’ boy with whom he served, and he was skillful at finding common ground with them. He was a natural teacher and believed part of his job was to use debate to elucidate issues, to encourage problem-solving. As a result, his rich legacy includes one of the most advanced amendments on privacy rights in any state Constitution as well as Florida’s homestead property-tax exemption. He outlawed discrimination at country clubs and championed education. “The Gordon Rule,” which requires more math and writing courses, raises the skill level of Florida college students. He was the kind of legislator who devoted time to thankless tasks like reorganizing the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and creating the Department of Corrections, grunt work that makes an enormous difference in the lives of people with no power.
Gordon’s politics were always progressive, and he fondly recalled the furious debates at the Miami Beach chess club, where old Bolsheviks and old Mensheviks still went after one another. He was a friend and business partner of the great Florida populist Claude Pepper; after Pepper’s death Gordon briefly considered a run for his Congressional seat. Although he was a brilliant politician, he was constitutionally incapable of dishonesty. The campaign consultants decided he would make a terrible candidate.
Gordon retired from the State Senate in 1992, observing that the money in politics had become overwhelming. He founded the Hospice Foundation of America and served on Rosalyn Carter’s mental health task force. He was a remarkable public servant and also just a lovely man. He is remembered by those who knew him as the most brilliant or the kindest man they ever met. Few things were more fun than seeing Jack Gordon’s ascetic face light up and his eyes begin to twinkle as he recognized something funny in whatever was under discussion–then all you had to do was sit back and wait for the quiet wisecrack.