TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Claude Kirk, a flamboyant self-promoter who became Florida’s first Republican governor of the 20th century even though he never held prior public office, died Wednesday. He was 85.
Kirk died peacefully in his sleep at his West Palm Beach home, his family said in a statement.
“He woke up every morning with 30 new ideas, 28 of which weren’t the best in the world, but two were absolutely genius,” said Nat Reed, who was Kirk’s environmental adviser and later served as assistant interior secretary under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Rural Democrats dominated Florida politics when Kirk was elected in 1966, but his victory over Robert King High cracked open the door for what eventually became the Republicans’ mastery of Tallahassee.
Although his political rivals derided the colorful insurance executive from Jacksonville, Kirk is credited with changing the course of state government and politics during his four-year term.
After leaving office, Kirk pursued a series of quixotic campaigns — including for the U.S. presidency, governor and U.S. senator — and swung back and forth between the two major political parties.
Kirk and Erika lived in West Palm Beach, where the former governor spent most of his time in investment banking.
A son-in-law, U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville, served as president of the Florida Senate in 1992 and was sent to Washington by voters in 2000 from Florida’s heavily Republican 4th Congressional District.
“Claude Kirk was probably the most charismatic person I ever met,” Crenshaw said in a statement. “He could be hysterically funny and fearlessly bold.”