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To the end, Chiles had plans for new career

Gov. Lawton Chiles, dressed in his coon skin vest, enjoys the parade after he was sworn in as governor in 1995. [Times photo: Fraser Hale]

By LUCY MORGAN Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998

Florida will never see another "He-Coon."

Our one-of-a-kind governor died suddenly Saturday afternoon, just as he was plotting his next political move.

Lawton Chiles

Gov. Chiles dies

Chiles leaves footprints in many parts of Florida

Chiles' legacy to grow with Florida's children

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.

Chiles spent Friday in Washington visiting the White House. Although he was typically coy about his plans when questioned by reporters earlier in the week, close friends said he was going to work for President Clinton.

The president could have used a little help from an experienced politician.

Many had expected Chiles to retire and spend his days turkey hunting, but it was clear he had other plans before ending a remarkable political career that got its start in the Florida Legislature more than 40 years ago.

Chiles always did like to do the unexpected. In 1990 when he decided to come out of retirement and seek election as governor, he did it at a time when everyone in the state's Democratic Party denied it was a possibility.

Oddly enough, the governor's death gives to Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay the one thing he could get no other way: the title of governor. Old friends predicted that MacKay will have a difficult three weeks.

"Say your prayers for Buddy MacKay," said Dexter Douglass, former general counsel for Chiles, as he stood outside the Governor's Mansion in the gathering darkness Saturday night. "It will be a difficult time. He has suffered a tremendous loss and now must spend the next three weeks as governor." It was MacKay who talked Chiles into coming out of retirement 8 1/2 years ago. They ran as Florida's "dream team," in a bid to return the Governor's Mansion to Democratic hands as the whole state was swinging into the Republican camp.

It worked for a time, but in the end they did not stop the GOP's steady march.

Douglass had been one of Chiles' closest friends since college and was one of the first to arrive at the mansion after the governor died. With shaking hands and fighting back tears, Douglass recalled some of the good times they shared.

There was nothing like the fun of seeing the Gators of the University of Florida, where they both attended law school, beat the pants off Florida State University to win a national title in the Sugar Bowl in 1997. Douglass recalled his friend's deep spirituality.

"Lawton didn't wear his religion on his sleeve," Douglass said. "But he was a real Christian. I'm sure he is in heaven tonight."

On Saturday night, it fell to Linda Shelley, chief of staff for the governor, to announce his death.

She stood in the crush of reporters outside the mansion, accompanied by Dan Stengle, general counsel for Chiles, and Ron Sachs, a former communications director for Chiles. Sachs, now a consultant, said he was asked to help the Chiles staff in the days to come.

Said Sachs: "We lost a great man tonight."


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