An aggressive and outspoken Republican, Paula Hawkins sailed into office in a Republican sweep led by victorious presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. A staunch defender of her ever-changing Florida constituency, she also created a public dialogue on the subject of missing, exploited, and abused children. Hawkins’s vigorous work to pass the 1982 Missing Children’s Act helped bring to light a long-ignored national scourge.
Paula Fickes was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on January 24, 1927, the oldest of three children raised by Paul, a chief warrant officer in the Navy, and Leone (Staley) Fickes. In 1934 the family settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where Paul Fickes took a teaching job at Georgia Tech. The Fickes eventually separated, and Leone Fickes moved with her children to Logan, Utah. Paula Fickes graduated from Cache High School in Richmond, Utah, in 1944. She attended Utah State University before taking a job as a secretary for the university’s director of athletics. Paula Fickes married Walter Eugene Hawkins on September 5, 1947. The couple settled in Atlanta, where Walter studied electrical engineering; he later owned a successful electronics business. The Hawkins raised three children: Genean, Kevin, and Kelly Ann.
The family moved to Florida in 1955 where Paula Hawkins first entered public affairs as a community activist and volunteer for the local Republican Party organization. In 1966, she helped orchestrate Republican Edward John Gurney’s successful campaign in the GOP primary and general election for a House seat. Two years later, Hawkins co-chaired the Richard M. Nixon presidential campaign in Florida. Hawkins’s work as a GOP regular provided her the base from which to launch a political career, winning election to the Florida public service commission where she served from 1972 to 1979. In 1974 she entered the primary race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Gurney, then a freshman incumbent under investigation for campaign finance improprieties.1 Hawkins, however, failed to secure the GOP nomination. In 1978 Hawkins lost a campaign for lieutenant governor of Florida.
In 1980, encouraged by the Republican National Committee, Hawkins entered the race for the seat of incumbent Democrat Senator Richard Bernard Stone. She won a plurality against five other contenders in the GOP primary but fell short of the necessary majority by just a few points. In the runoff primary she overwhelmed the runner-up, former U.S. Representative Louis Frey Jr. with 62 percent of the vote.2 In the general election, she faced popular former U.S. Representative William Dawson (Bill) Gunter Jr., who had edged Senator Stone in the Democratic primary. The election seemed to hinge less on substantive issues than on the candidates’ personalities, with Hawkins depicted, partly on her own volition, as being aggressive and forceful. “[Voters] don’t want specifics,” Hawkins said. “People are looking for somebody that will shake it up. . . .That’s all they want. They want a fighter.”3 Observers agreed that Hawkins benefited from the long coattails of GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who won Florida with 56 percent of the vote on his way to victory. Hawkins won, too, but by a narrower margin, just 52 percent.4 She was part of a Republican tide in the Senate, as 14 new GOP Senators were elected to the upper chamber, shifting control away from the Democrats for the first time in nearly three decades.
When Senator Stone resigned from office on December 31, 1980, Hawkins was appointed to fill his seat on January 1, 1981, thus giving her a minor seniority advantage over the rest of the Senate freshmen who were sworn in two days later. Senator Hawkins was assigned to three committees when the 97th Congress (1981–1983) convened: Labor and Human Resources; Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; and Joint Economic. In the 98th Congress (1983–1985), she received additional appointments to the Foreign Relations Committee and the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Hawkins also served on the Special Committee on Aging.
Hawkins immediately began cultivating her image as a scrapper. Her outspoken manner, however, was not always well-received by more staid Senate colleagues. After a year in office, Hawkins altered her approach, hoping that constituents would judge her legislative achievements rather than her aggressive style. “I guess I have my dog in too many fights,” she confided to the New York Times in late 1981.5 Hawkins lobbied hard for federal aid to help the state defray the costs of caring for, housing, and processing thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees in Florida. “We just might have to dig a ditch at our northern border, erect a sign, ‘Yankees, Keep Out,’ and apply for foreign aid ourselves. Florida is under siege, and it’s no fault of our own,” Hawkins said. In particular, Hawkins expressed concern about the effects of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which resulted when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro temporarily lifted emigration restrictions. It was later revealed that Castro emptied some of his nation’s jails, setting former inmates aboard the “freedom flotilla” to Florida; 23,000 of the immigrants had conviction records. State authorities were extremely taxed handling the flood of refugees. Hawkins described the boatlift people in sweeping terms; they were, she told one newspaper, “terrorists.” Her solution to the problem: “Send them home.”6
As chair of the Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Hawkins initiated a year-long probe of the rising numbers of children reported missing by their families. She worked closely with a Florida couple, John and Reve Walsh, whose son, Adam, was abducted from a Florida shopping mall and was later found decapitated, a horrific episode that riveted the nation. The Walsh family had found that a number of bureaucratic roadblocks hindered the search for their son and were determined to create a missing children’s agency to facilitate searches. Paula Hawkins was a key ally in that effort. Her work led to the passage of the Missing Children’s Act of 1982, a measure that established a national center for information about missing children. Prior to this legislation, parents had been required to wait 48 hours before the federal officials could become involved in the search for a missing child. Hawkins’s bill abolished that waiting period. It also gave parents access to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database, the National Crime Information Center, where they could list their child and perform searches through records of existing reports.7 By clearing away the red tape, Hawkins’s bill helped locate more than 2,000 children in the first year of its existence.
In 1984, at the Third National Conference on Sexual Victimization of Children, Hawkins stunned the audience by revealing that she was sexually assaulted as a kindergartener by a trusted elderly neighbor. When the case went to court, however, the judge discounted her and other neighborhood children’s testimony. The abuser was set free. “I like to win,” Hawkins recalled, “and it’s bothered me all this time that the ‘nice old man’ got off and went on abusing children for the rest of his life. The embarrassment and humiliation of being called a liar will stay with me the rest of mine.” For Hawkins, talking publicly about her abuse was personally therapeutic, and she hoped it would encourage others to feel comfortable speaking about their own experiences. “Almost immediately, many other child abuse victims felt free to discuss their own difficult experiences,” she recalled in her autobiography. “After all, if a U.S. Senator had opened up, why shouldn’t they?”8
Hawkins’s 1986 re-election campaign was judged to be a referendum not only on Hawkins’s first term in office but the Reagan presidency as well. With 22 GOP seats up for election, the Republican majority in the Senate was at stake. Early on, GOP officials deemed Hawkins’s contest a key electoral battle and began putting money and resources into it. She faced the most popular politician in the state: two-term Governor Daniel Robert (Bob) Graham, whose approval ratings topped 80 percent. At one point, Hawkins trailed by as much as 22 percent in some of the polls, but political observers refused to count her out. “Paula’s like a teabag,” one Florida GOP official observed. “You have to put her in hot water to see how strong she is.”9 During the campaign, Hawkins suffered from poor health, and in May 1985, news reports revealed that Hawkins’s estranged brother had been indicted on child abuse charges.10 Hawkins maintained that the timing of that news release was a ploy to hurt her campaign. In early 1986, suffering pain from an old back injury, Hawkins checked herself into Duke University Hospital and was temporarily sidelined by a surgical procedure.11 Lost weeks of campaigning hurt Hawkins in a state where voter turnover—by one estimate nearly one-third of the registered voters in 1986 had not been residents in 1980—was a perennial concern for politicians.12 She also had the difficult task of campaigning against a Democratic opponent who supported such Republican positions as Strategic Defense Initiative, aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, and the death penalty.13 Hawkins lost to Governor Graham by nearly 180,000 votes, or a 55-to-45 percent margin, as Democrats regained control of the Senate.14
After completing her term in the Senate, Hawkins returned to her home in Winter Park, Florida. She served for seven years as a representative for the United States on the Organization of American States Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission. In 1997 she retired from politics and joined the board of directors of a large drug and cosmetic company. Hawkins also served as president of a management consulting company she founded in 1988. On December 4, 2009, Hawkins died in Orlando, Florida.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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