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A Times Editorial

Chiles' legacy to grow with Florida's children

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998

Walkin' Lawton leaves big shoes to fill.

Lawton Chiles

Gov. Chiles dies

Chiles leaves footprints in many parts of Florida

To the end, Chiles had plans for new career

Floridians remember a man of the people

Chiles' health an issue for years

Chiles photo gallery

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay: a quick look at the man who will take over until Jeb Bush is sworn in.

Times forum: What will be Chiles' legacy in Florida? Participate in a special forum and share your thoughts.

Lawton Chiles, a virtual unknown when he launched his first U.S. Senate race in 1970, had grown into a larger-than-life character by the time he neared the end of his second term as governor. He never lost an election. He probably never lost a battle of wits. A true Florida original, he will be remembered as the last of his breed of colorful Cracker Democrats in an increasingly urbanized, homogenized and Republican state.

The Chiles legacy will live on most visibly in the thousands of Florida children who will grow up stronger and more self-sufficient thanks to Healthy Kids and other programs the governor advocated to help the state's most vulnerable citizens. In his last years as governor, Chiles didn't always seem energized for the often frustrating battles he was forced to wage with a Republican-controlled Legislature. But at-risk kids always received his full attention. Gov.-elect Jeb Bush and the next Legislature can best honor Chiles' memory by committing themselves to build on the success of the governor's efforts on behalf of Florida's children.

Chiles will be remembered as the last of a breed in another respect. His first U.S. Senate race was, literally and figuratively, a shoestring operation. He walked the state, meeting Floridians one-on-one, and his underfunded campaign shocked all the big-money boys. As the cost of political campaigns skyrocketed over the next quarter-century, Chiles remained a holdout for politics on the grass-roots level.

Although Chiles could have raised mountains of special-interest money by the time he had become a powerful incumbent, he consistently placed voluntary fund-raising limits on his campaigns. That commitment to frugality and integrity also marked his tenure in the U.S. Senate, where he quickly gained bipartisan respect as an uncompromising advocate for fiscal restraint in the federal budget.

Chiles was prescient in a way. A decade ago, he gave up his politically secure U.S. Senate seat out of frustration with an increasingly partisan and dysfunctional legislative process. At the time, political observers were shocked by such an unusual move. Since then, the stream of fellow budget hawks and political moderates jumping ship has grown to a flood. The Sam Nunns and Warren Rudmans and Bill Bradleys of the Senate followed Walkin' Lawton's trail, and Washington is poorer for it.

Some of the same frustrations followed Chiles to Tallahassee. He also dished out his share of frustration. The wily old He-Coon could be stubborn as a mule, and Republican legislators -- and more than a few fellow Democrats -- occasionally felt his wrath. But in his last days as governor, Chiles surprised a lot of people by going out of his way to smooth the transition for Bush, his opponent in the bitter 1994 gubernatorial election. Just last week, Chiles and Bush worked together to choose a new state Supreme Court justice and avoid a sticky constitutional dispute.

Chiles would have enjoyed retirement. He loved hunting and other excuses to spend time outdoors in the wild Florida he knew best -- and he especially loved the company of the old friends who accompanied him on those forays. He also had a big and close family that was looking forward to sharing more of his time.

Our prayers go out to his wife, Rhea, and the rest of the Chiles family. Interim Gov. Buddy MacKay and Gov.-elect Bush also can use the prayers of all Floridians as they work together during this difficult time.


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