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Chiles leaves footprints in many parts of Florida

As a state legislator from Polk County, Chiles became "Walkin' Lawton" by walking more than 1,000 miles from the Panhandle to South Florida in three months during his first U.S. Senate campaign in 1970. As hiked, he said, he filled eight notebooks "with information on our state's problems and the feelings of the people." [AP file photo: 1970]

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998

Lawton Chiles, his legendary walking boots on the table next to him, reminiscenced about the disappearing Florida he loved.

Of rural counties and camp fires. Of Floridians who understood what he meant by "the old he-coon walks just before the light of day." Of whether there would be another governor who would share his political and personal roots.

"People say that it is the last of the Crackers," Chiles said last week, in one of his last interviews. "I don't know that that's true. There will be other people who were born and raised in Florida. They may not be Crackers like I am."

Chiles, who died Saturday at age 68, was a populist Democrat who often established instant rapport with ordinary Floridians over 18 years as a U.S. senator and nearly eight years as governor. It didn't matter whether they were visiting him in Washington or the Governor's Mansion -- or whether he was comforting them after their house had been destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.

"Lawton never forgot the thousands of ordinary citizens he met as he walked the highways and backroads of his state whom he served so well," President Clinton said Saturday night. "And they will never forget him."

Chiles grew up dreaming of becoming a U.S. senator like his boyhood idol, Spessard Holland. But he loved being governor, frequently telling friends his worst day in Tallahassee was better than his best day in Washington.

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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.

"The only thing you have to do as governor is you need to be able to make a decision," Chiles said last week. "You need to make it timely, and then you have to put your assets together to bring that decision to fruition. And I could make a decision."

As governor, Chiles won billions from tobacco companies, lost legislative fights over taxes and health care and looked after Florida's children as if he were their grandfather. The children's programs he supported helped cut the state's infant mortality rate by 25 percent since 1990, reduce the teen birth rate and provide health insurance for thousands of youngsters.

Chiles also was the first Democrat in the Governor's Mansion to grapple with a Republican-controlled Legislature, struggled to reach a consensus on restoring the Everglades and led nationally recognized efforts to overhaul welfare.

But Democrats who may not recapture Florida's governorship for years praise Chiles as one of the nation's best public servants.

Clinton, who knew Chiles for more than 20 years, called him "one of the most successful and respected public officials in the later half of the 20th century. He set a benchmark for how public servants will be judged and, I believe, created a legacy that will endure for generations."

Former Gov. Reubin Askew, who served two terms in the 1970s and is considered one of Florida's finest governors, agreed.

"He was without a doubt one of the finest public servants our state has ever produced," Askew said of his friend Saturday night. "Lawton had a freshness and candor about him that people could relate to and appreciate."

Republicans recognized Chiles' unique political skills even as they fought him over his programs.

"His totally laid back style really disguised a very keen mind in an awful lot of areas," Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade said.

Yet Chiles leaves behind more than a trail of political wins and losses.

Just as enduring are campaign snapshots that defined state politics for different generations of voters.

A lanky 40-year-old walking 1,000 miles in 1970, earning him the nickname "Walkin' Lawton" and a U.S. Senate seat. A rejuvenated 60-year-old coming out of retirement in 1990, wearing plaid shirts and his old walking boots to beat a Republican incumbent governor in 1990.

And a grinning, gray-haired legend wearing a coonskin cap to celebrate a narrow 1994 re-election punctuated by his "he-coon" line that froze Republican Jeb Bush during the final debate.

But Chiles' place in Florida history will be marked by more than the scorecard of legislative battles and campaign gimmicks.

In a changing Florida, he is viewed as the last of a generation of governors who as moderate Democrats reshaped a once-sleepy state over four decades:

LeRoy Collins, 1955-61, considered Florida's best governor for his efforts to reform public education and his progressive views on race. Collins died in 1991, Chiles' first year as governor.

Askew, 1971-79, credited with restoring integrity to the office and winning tax and court reforms. Askew and Chiles were state senators in 1970 when Askew ran for governor and Chiles ran for the U.S. Senate.

Bob Graham, 1979-1987, who placed new emphasis on higher education and the environment before moving on to the U.S. Senate. Graham was in the state House in the late '60s when Askew and Chiles were in the state Senate.

And Chiles, 1991-1998, who like Graham reveres both Collins and Askew.

All four men were born before World War II. All but one was born in Florida; Askew moved to Pensacola as a young boy. All but Collins attended the University of Florida as an undergraduate or as a law student. All but Graham served in the military.

And every one of them were state legislators before they were governors.

"That group all came through some common experiences," Chiles said. "I guess there is some change of the times coming now."

Since Chiles and Askew first won statewide office in 1970, Florida's population has doubled to 14-million and become more diverse. Just since Chiles became governor, the state Legislature has fallen under Republican control for the first time this century.

Bush became the exclamation point on the transformation last month by defeating Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, the Democrat who represented the final link to the Collins-Askew-Graham-Chiles generation. While Florida elected Republican governors Claude Kirk in the 1960s and Bob Martinez in the 1980s, they proved to be only four-year interruptions in the chain of Democrats.

With changing demographics and political winds, Bush's election appears to represent a more permanent shift. At 45, he is 20 years younger than MacKay. The Miami real estate developer went to college in Texas and has never held elected office.

And like two of every three Floridians, he is not a native.

Chiles brought a folksy image to the governor's office. This was a chief executive who used his second inaugural address to complain about the difficulty of getting permits for a "cook shack" in the woods. He often avoided early office appointments to go hunting, and he talked passionately about what appeals to him about rural Florida.

"It is to be able to sit around the fire at night and listen to the old timers talk and tell the stories they tell, about when they were trying to settle the land and some of the things they had to do, putting sacks around the heads of horses at night so the mosquitoes wouldn't drive them crazy," Chiles said last week. "Those kind of things kind of turn me on."

He acknowledged there was a political purpose to lines such as "a cut dog barks."

Chiles said he wanted to connect to native Floridians who are swing voters and more likely now to vote Republican.

"I wanted them to know I had the blood that they had," he said, "that I think like they think."

Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was born in Lakeland on April 3, 1930. The son of a railroad conductor, he could recall the excitement he felt as a child as he listened to politicians speak in the city square.

After attending public schools in Lakeland, Chiles graduated from the University of Florida in 1952, served as an Army artillery officer during the Korean War in 1953-54 and returned to the University of Florida to get a law degree in 1955. By that time he and his wife, the former Rhea Grafton, had three young children.

In 1958, Chiles made his first run for the state House. He and Mrs. Chiles knocked on doors for months, and he defeated a long-time incumbent. The total cost of that first campaign, he once recalled, was about $1,200.

Over eight years in the state House and four in the state Senate, Chiles was a key member of a group of reformers who worked to modernize the Legislature and sharpened his skills as a budget expert. But he was not well-known statewide when he jumped into the 1970 race to replace Holland, his boyhood idol, in the U.S. Senate.

Then came the walk.

It took Chiles 91 days to walk 1,000 miles from the Panhandle town of Century to the Keys. Early on, friends drove out from Tallahassee to urge him to quit.

"It was lonesome when I first started walking in the Panhandle, and I found that the way I could get somebody to walk with me a little further would be if I didn't talk but if I listened," Chiles recalled in his last State of the State address to the Legislature last spring. "And the other thing I found out is when I listened, I started learning something."

The walk captured Florida's imagination, and Chiles won the Senate seat and earned his first nickname: "Walkin' Lawton."

In the U.S. Senate, Chiles gradually worked his way up through the ranks and developed a moderate record and a reputation for stubborn independence.

He led investigations into the federal government's meat and furniture purchases in the 1970s. He helped pass legislation on issues ranging from open government to expanded Medicare benefits. He brought Florida millions in federal dollars for the Everglades and roads.

To reassure voters that Washington had not changed him, he put a $10 limit on contributions to his re-election campaign in 1976 and a $100 limit on contributions to his 1982 campaign.

"Being able to go against the money, to never have to be really hooked on the money, I think was one of the best things that ever happened to me," Chiles recalled last week. "It allowed me to be the person that I was able to be . . . the people gave me the benefit of the doubt on many votes."

After the 1986 elections, the small-town country lawyer rose to the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Budget Committee. But his efforts to get the then-spiraling federal deficit under control frustrated him. Many Democrats in Congress would not limit spending, and President Reagan would not raise taxes.

By late 1987, those frustrations were too much. Chiles announced his retirement, and Republican Connie Mack defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay in 1988 to win the Senate seat.

Chiles, who turned out to be suffering from depression so devastating that he called them "the blacks," returned to Tallahassee. He oversaw the Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University, taught at the University of Florida and headed the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality.

But by early 1990, Chiles felt better. He was taking the anti-depressant drug Prozac and privately contemplating running for governor. In early March, MacKay traveled to Tallahassee and urged Chiles over dinner to run.

In April, Chiles jumped into the race with MacKay as his running mate and stuck with his $100 limit on contributions. He easily defeated Republican incumbent Bob Martinez to become Florida's 41st governor.

There was giddy talk of a return to Camelot. Looking back, some of his closest aides and friends acknowledged last week that expectations were too high. They say they misjudged the difficulty of some of Florida's problems and the power of state legislators and special interests to fight the governor.

"We were not realistic when we came in and neither were many of the people around us," said Doug Cook, the controversial head of the Agency for Health Care Administration.

In those first years, Chiles was hit with one crisis after another.

First came a recession, forcing spending cuts of $2-billion during his first 18 months in office.

In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed into south Florida. Chiles spent weeks comforting victims and negotiating federal and state aid packages to cope with the nation's most costly natural disaster.

In 1993, a string of tourist murders triggered another crisis of international proportions as Chiles struggled to reassure travelers it was safe to come to Florida.

Between the crises, there were some legislative accomplishments. New limits on campaign contributions. A new Department of Elder Affairs. The creation of health purchasing alliances that now insure more than 100,000 employees whose companies otherwise could not afford to offer coverage.

But Chiles could not persuade legislators to approve his two largest initiatives, tax reform and broader health care coverage based on federal and state Medicaid savings. He said last week he had to pursue tax reform to fulfill a campaign pledge and that bad timing killed his health care reforms.

In 1994, Chiles came from behind to defeat Jeb Bush in the closest governor's race ever. Bush's lack of experience irritated the career politician. Those emotions and Chiles' unique personality came through in his classic line in the final debate: "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day."

Translation: The crafty old veteran will strike at the right time.

Chiles celebrated election night with a coonskin cap on his head.

Months later, the governor would be forced to acknowledge his campaign made thousands of misleading telephone calls to elderly voters. The calls were aimed at scaring seniors into believing Bush would cut their Medicare benefits. It would be one of the few blemishes on Chiles' personal integrity.

The last four years have been dominated by the governor's war on tobacco. He caught grief from legislators and newspaper editorial boards for years for sneaking through the 1994 Legislature a change in state law that made it easier to sue the tobacco industry for the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses with tax dollars.

But Chiles stubbornly refused to budge, and Florida won a $13.1-billion settlement.

In the waning weeks of the Chiles administration, his office released a booklet outlining the eight-year record. Streamlining state government. Better programs for children. More money to build new schools. Continuation of environmental land-buying programs. More appointments of minority residents than any previous governor.

University of Florida history professor David Colburn ranked Chiles close to Collins and Askew.

"I would say overall that any governor that knows this state as well as he does, who can step back and look at its future and what it needs, who sets about informing legislators and Floridians about those needs, that's a pretty daggone effective governor," the professor said.

Chiles is survived by four adult children: Tandy Chiles Barrett, Lawton (Bud) Chiles III, Ed Chiles and Rhea Chiles.

Despite rumors that he might go to work for the Clinton administration, Chiles said last week he had no plans beyond spending Christmas with his family.

"It is the first time in my life," he said, "that I have not felt like I had to plan where I was going to be."
-- Times staff writer Craig Basse contributed to this report.


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