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Harry Johnston, former Florida senator, state Senate president, U.S. congressman and Palm Beach County resident, died Monday, the Florida Senate confirmed Tuesday. He was 89.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Johnston was born in West Palm Beach in 1931. He studied at the Virginia Military Institute before joining the U.S. Army. He earned his law degree from the University of Florida and returned to West Palm Beach to practice law.
He became Palm Beach County assistant attorney in 1960 and then served as attorney for the Palm Beach County Area Planning Board. He was also a member of the governor’s Special Task Force on Prison Reform and on the Florida Supreme Court’s sentencing committee.
Friend and fellow attorney Jon Moyle first convinced him to run for office in 1974. Neither thought Johnston stood a chance at unseating the incumbent.
“I said, ‘Jon, I’ll run, but I don’t think I can win,’” Johnston said in a 1986 article in the Gainesville Sun. They were both wrong, and Johnston began his long political career.
Johnston represented multiple counties near the northwest end of Lake Okeechobee from 1974 to 1986 and served as state Senate president from 1984 to 1986.
Johnston was considered a moderate Democrat in a Senate dominated by Republicans. He advocated for tough laws on drunk driving, said he was tough on crime, opposed pornography and supported the death penalty.
As Senate president, he helped usher along the Growth Management Act, which placed more requirements on local governments to engage citizens on how communities regulated local development.
He ran for governor in 1985 but lost in the Democratic primary.
Johnston later ran for and won his election to U.S. Congress, where he was the primary sponsor of two bills that were later enacted: the South African Democratic Transition Support Act of 1993, calling for the U.S. to support South Africa after its decades of apartheid and a financial relief bill for James Stanley, a former U.S. Army sergeant that was given the psychedelic drug LSD without his knowledge by the Army and CIA as part of a secret research project.
That bill got Stanley $400,577 in 1996, the maximum allowed by a private claims bill at the time.
Outside of political office, Johnston sat on the board of directors of a number of civic and arts organizations such as the Norton Art Museum in West Palm Beach and Children’s Services Council. He was also a member and later became president of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.
“When he was president of the Florida Senate, I was in high school, and I paid him a visit in Tallahassee,” said current Forum Club president Harvey Oyer III. He met Johnston through his father, Harvey Oyer Jr., who knew Johnston for decades.
“Other than the governor or the House speaker, he’d be one of the busiest people in Tallahassee in the middle of a legislative session, and he made a point of leaving his meeting and coming out to greet me when I was 16 or 17 years old,” Oyer continued.
After high school, Oyer volunteered for Johnston’s gubernatorial run. Even during a competitive race for governor, Oyer recalled Johnston as a dedicated family man.
“It was late in the day and he needed to be back … the next day and his campaign staff said ‘Let’s get a hotel,’ and he said ‘no, I am going to drive home and spend the night with my wife like I have every night of my married life,’ and the staffer tried to talk him out of it,” Oyer said. “He firmly but politely put his foot down and said … ‘Tonight will be no different. I’ll see you in the morning.’ And I think that really spoke to the type of man he was.”
Johnston threw his support behind younger people running for office who he thought could make a difference.
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner recalled meeting Johnston when he first decided to run for the state House a decade ago.
“He was very supportive. I was 28 or maybe 27 at the time and he was very supportive of me running. He was very involved, and you don’t always get that,” said Kerner, who has stayed in touch with Johnston over the years. “He would always email or typically send a hand-written letter saying, ‘I’m proud of you’ or ‘keep up the good work,’ and it was really very meaningful.”
“I will always remember him as someone who dedicated his life to his community and found lots of rewards in that,” Kerner said.
Johnston’s family is planning a private memorial service.