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 in his sleep at his West Palm Beach home, his family said in a statement.

“He woke up every morning with 30 new ideas, 20 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.

“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 “Claudius Maximus,” and “Kissing Claude,” the latter a reference to his fondness for women and them for him.

“He couldn’t resist being a character because he was born a character,” said Reed in a telephone interview from New Brunswick, Canada, where he was traveling. “He had a position on everything, sometimes without careful analysis and thought. He loved being despised by newspapers.”

Kirk also enjoyed battling with Florida’s power brokers and a bureaucracy filled with retired lawmakers, Reed said.

“He tore down the temple of Old Florida,” Reed said. “Gov. Reubin Askew followed him and built New Florida out of the rubble that Kirk left.”

Reed, vice chairman of the Everglades Foundation, credited Kirk with starting to clean up Florida’s environment that was blighted by sewage flowing into the ocean and lakes. He said Kirk initially supported building an airport in the Everglades and the Cross-Florida Barge Canal but ardently opposed both when he realized what they’d do to the environment.