Claude Kirk (Mickey Adair/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - 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.
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.
"There weren't a lot of people ready to be Republicans," the California-born Kirk recalled of those days during a 1999 interview with The Associated Press. "We had to create our own."
Political niceties were of no concern to Kirk, who was known as "Claud ius Maximus," and "Kissing Claude." His relationship with the Democratic-controlled Legislature was acrimonious, especially over issues such as taxes and urban sprawl. His opposition to court-ordered school busing gained national attention.
"Only the governor, as far as Kirk was concerned, knew what was good for the state and had the best interests of Florida in mind," Edmund F. Kallina Jr., wrote in a 1993 historical review of Kirk's years as governor.
"He viewed the Legislature with disdain, and at times, even contempt," wrote Kallina, a University of Central Florida history professor. "He could and did respect individual members, but he considered most of them corrupt or stupid or both."
Kirk could anger his friends as well as his adversaries.
"He could even make the Lord mad," former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead, a Panama City businessman, once said.
Claude R. Kirk Jr. was born Jan. 7, 1926, in San Bernardino, Calif., a nd attended high school in Montgomery, Ala. He served in the Marines in World War II and Korea and graduated from the University of Alabama Law School.
He moved to Jacksonville in 1956 to found the American Heritage Insurance. He became a Republican in 1960 to head the "Floridians for Nixon" campaign. Nixon carried the state by 3 percentage points over then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Kirk ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and lost. He then ran for governor in 1966, saying he didn't like the way the government was operating.
A supporter of the death penalty, Kirk even visited a state prison during his campaign and told death-row inmates that he might have to sign their death warrants one day.
Kirk, however, never had the chance because of an informal national moratorium on executions during his years in office.
He easily defeated High, who had won the Democratic nomination over incumbent Gov. Haydon Burns in a divisive primary.
"Marine training say s you're never supposed to lose and I believe that as well," Kirk said. "I am most proud of getting elected, which I figured would happen."
Kirk, who was divorced at the time, showed up at his inaugural ball accompanied by "Madame X," whom he would not introduce to the press. The mysterious guest, Erika Mattfeld, married Kirk a month later. Two Kirk marriages produced seven children, including two who were born while he was governor.
He lost his re-election bid to Democrat Reubin Askew in 1970 by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin.
The next Republican to win a governor's race in Florida was Bob Martinez in 1986, again after Democrats split during a bitter primary. Like Kirk, Martinez failed to win re-election.
After leaving office, Kirk pursued a series of quixotic campaigns - including the U.S. presidency - and swung back and forth between the two major political parties.
Kirk and Erika lived in West Palm Beach where the former governor spent mos t 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 pro-business, pro-military and heavily Republican 4th Congressional District.
Kirk's political allegiances matched his eclectic personality. Kirk was a longtime friend of Nixon adviser Bob Finch, a former lieutenant governor in California.
After Watergate had forced Nixon from office, Kirk visited Finch at the White House.
"He said to me, 'Kirk, do you know they have nine hours of you on tape in the White House?' I said, 'Did I say anything?' He said, 'As usual, nothing.'"
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press