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A man of and for the people


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1998

It surely confounded many of today's modern, media-savvy politicians that someone whose speeches often sounded so homespun and awkward could win as many elections as Lawton Chiles did.

That trait was, of course, a window onto the qualities that endeared him to the public. He never forgot his humble roots, even as he met presidents and kings and learned to love sushi. He loved Florida and its people as few other people ever have. He rejoiced in simple pleasures -- hunting, fishing and, forgive him, chewing tobacco. There wasn't a trace of uppity in him. He was always one of "us," not "them." When he was amid the public, as at the scene of a tornado or other disaster, people sensed he had to come to see and listen, not to talk. What the media occasionally reproved as cronyism, people saw as evidence that this man did not turn his back on friends.

Sophisticates chuckled when he talked about listening to inner "voices," but the little people understood that, too. The "voices" were his instincts, his intuition, his insights and his ideals. Everyone has these to some degree, but few listen to them as faithfully as Chiles did.

You begin to understand the power of his principles when you take the measure of the major accomplishments -- and failures -- recited in his obituaries.

He tried to wring special interest money out of politics. He did not succeed, but public financing is in the Constitution now, and Chiles' example of personal restraint -- setting $100 contribution limits on his own campaigns -- set a standard against which all successors will be judged. If the Legislature does not now pass an effective soft money bill and name it for him, eternal shame on them.

He fought for and won improved health care for pregnant women and infants and access to affordable insurance for small employers and their workers. The health profiteers prevented broader gains -- but when they come, as they will, his prophecies in the wilderness will be remembered.

He successfully took on one of the world's most powerful lobbies, the tobacco industry, to hold it accountable for spreading illness and death and to shield Florida's children from succumbing to its lures. The media raged and thundered that a law of such consequences could be slipped through the legislature so stealthily -- as if the special interests didn't do so every session -- but they couldn't faze him. The inner voices told him he was right -- and he was.

Lawton Chiles feared nothing but the failure to try to do right, as he saw what was right.

One of his most important elections was one in which he wasn't on the ballot. Gov. Haydon Burns, an old-school machine politician, wanted the Legislature to approve a road bond program that Chiles, a young and essentially powerless legislator, thought unnecessary and wasteful. The Legislature rubber-stamped it and sent it to the voters. Chiles and a few other upstarts took their case to the people and won. Burns' defeat in that referendum exposed his vulnerability and set him up to be defeated for renomination in the ensuing Democratic primary.

The old-guard Democratic establishment took its revenge on the liberal who had defeated him, Miami Mayor Robert King High, by supporting Republican Claude R. Kirk Jr., who won. If that seemed at the time a setback for progressives, history has shown that it wasn't. It left the Democratic pork choppers out of power forever and set the stage for Reubin Askew to become governor in the same remarkable election that saw Chiles elected to the U.S. Senate at the expense of three better-known and better-financed candidates -- a former governor, a House speaker and an influential congressman -- who had all been thought to have far better prospects.

One of the supposed finalists was House Speaker Fred Schultz, D-Jacksonville, a millionaire investment banker who quickly grounded his campaign airplane and took to a motor home not long after Chiles started his famous walk from Pensacola to the Keys.

Riding with Schultz one day, I asked him why he thought so many of their legislative colleagues were endorsing Chiles rather than him.

"Because he's a heck of a nice guy," said Schultz.

The cynics say that Chiles was the last of a kind in Florida politics. I'm not so sure. The last Democratic governor, perhaps, at least for a while. But Democrats have no monopoly on simple virtues, and so long as the people retain their ability to recognize who has them and who does not, there will be a place for politicians who may speak awkwardly but who speak from the heart.

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