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A Times Editorial

The governor's legacy

Gov. Lawton Chiles helped make Florida a better and more decent place for all of us.

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1998

The sudden death of Gov. Lawton Chiles, just three weeks before he was to leave office, is a time for Floridians to express their gratitude for the contributions he made to our state. It's also an occasion for all of us, natives and transplants, Democrats and Republicans, to reflect on how we can translate his legacy into something more than eulogies, editorials and dry history. As he would be the first to tell us, his most important work is unfinished.

Chiles' legacy is greater than the sum of his legislative achievements. He brought to politics and government values that are becoming all too rare in modern political life. Among those values were compassion for the most vulnerable among us and a belief that elected officials should represent ordinary citizens, not the special interests. He had little tolerance for mindless bureaucracy, but he firmly believed in government's role as a problem solver. He was not without his faults, and he lost some major political fights with the Legislature, including a big one on tax reform. But his priorities as governor were generally true to the better impulses of his populist character, and Florida is a better place, a more decent society, because of him.

At age 68, Chiles' heart apparently failed him. The voters never did. In his more than 40 years in public office -- state legislator, U.S. Senator and finally two terms as governor -- Chiles never lost an election. He was a proud Cracker Democrat, a fourth generation Floridian who relished the "He-coon" moniker he earned in his last campaign for governor. Even though he was just 23 days away from turning the governorship over to Republican Jeb Bush, the news of Chiles' death struck most Floridians, including many of his political adversaries, with a sharp sense of political and personal loss. Few politicians have ever had a better sense of how to connect with the little people he depended on over the years to confound the experts who had counted him out.

For many, it will be difficult to imagine Florida without Lawton Chiles. He will be remembered as the last of those progressive Democratic governors who led Florida through challenging times with quiet courage, compassion and the right priorities. Gov. LeRoy Collins, who served from 1955-61, is considered the greatest of this breed. He made public education a priority and stood up to the racists who wanted to close public schools rather than integrate them. Reubin Askew was in the Collins tradition, publicly opposing an organized statewide campaign against court-ordered busing for desegregation. Askew also is credited with restoring integrity to the office and winning tax and court reforms. Bob Graham, now a U.S. Senator, made his mark as governor by improving higher education and pushing through important protections for Florida's fragile environment.

Each of these Democratic governors faced different problems and challenges, and some were more successful than others. But what they all had in common was a set of progressive values and a governing philosophy that moved our state forward in the critical areas of education, race relations and environmental protection. They were not perfect; they made mistakes; and they knew their share of failures and disappointments. Chiles, for example, was criticized for not making education and the environment greater priorities during his eight years as governor.

Chiles' record on families and children will go down as his finest work. Going against the political fashion of the time, he reminded us of our obligations to our oldest and youngest citizens. Because of his efforts, more Florida children are getting off to a healthy start. The state's infant mortality rate has declined and so has the teen birth rate. More poor Floridians, including children, have health insurance coverage. Gov.-elect Bush, who will take the oath of office on Jan. 5, called Chiles "a legend who always stood up for those in need." There could be no finer tribute to the He-coon, especially coming from a former political opponent.

This is a sad time for the Chiles family and for all those Floridians who loved and believed in this man. As we prepare to say farewell to the governor, it is not necessary to overlook his flaws and failures or to exaggerate his virtues and accomplishments to pay him a proper respect. It's enough to just say that Lawton Chiles loved this state deeply and served it well.

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