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MacKay addresses a televised press conference on Sunday. [AP photo: Mark Foley]

MacKay steps into
awkward 23 days

"There's no great pleasure in this,'' he says of becoming Florida's 42nd governor after the death of his longtime friend and political partner.

By PETER WALLSTEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1998


TALLAHASSEE -- Buddy MacKay fought hard to become Florida's 42nd governor, promising better schools, affordable health care and safer neighborhoods.

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Gov. Buddy MacKay checks his notes before making a statement to the press on Sunday. [AP photo: Mark Foley]
He didn't win the election last month, but the death of his longtime friend and partner leaves MacKay with an awkward 23 days as Florida's chief executive.

Instead of grappling with the issues he loves, MacKay will be consumed with other tasks: the state funeral for Gov. Lawton Chiles, making leftover appointments to minor boards and handing state government to the man who beat him at the polls, Gov.-elect Jeb Bush.

"There's no great pleasure in this," said MacKay, 65, of taking the job he has always desired.

"The most important thing I can do is see to it that we finish out this term, honor the commitments that we've made, and that it be done properly," he said in an interview Sunday. "Lawton and I both have a great commitment seeing to it that the transition is done smoothly."

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With wife Anne, left, looking on, MacKay hugs a staff member before leaving the Governor's mansion.
[AP photo: Don Edgar]
Clearly overwhelmed by Chiles' sudden death, MacKay and his wife, Anne, were struggling Sunday to comprehend the weekend's events.

Just Saturday afternoon, the couple was shopping in Boston and viewing a Claude Monet exhibit. They returned to their hotel room to find the telephone message light blinking. The MacKays scrambled to get on a plane to Atlanta, where they were picked up by a state crew and flown through thick fog to Tallahassee.

With his wife at his side, MacKay stood in his Capitol office at 12:30 a.m. Sunday, put his left hand on one of his son's old Bibles and swore to "well and faithfully perform the duties" of governor.

"I just couldn't believe it," MacKay said Sunday, 15 hours after taking the oath. "I couldn't get my mind around it. Lawton Chiles had been such a vital, energetic, fun, joking part of my life for the past eight years. I'm still having trouble with it."


Lawton Chiles
1930-1998

Chiles' last journey to recall his famous first

MacKay steps into awkward 23 days

MacKay's statement

Tim Nickens: He-Coon' walked own path

Howard Troxler: Chiles had faith in politics and trust in the voters

Words from the heart of a He-Coon

Funeral plans

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.


Earlier coverage:
Gov. Chiles dies

To the end, Chiles had plans for new career

Chiles' legacy to grow with Florida's children

Floridians remember a man of the people

Chiles' health an issue for years

Chiles' death came as both men were laying their plans for life after politics.

MacKay was in Boston to meet with officials from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government about a possible teaching position. Chiles was to be named President Clinton's special envoy to Latin America.

While he called his plans "too premature" to discuss, MacKay said he was thinking about how much Chiles was looking forward to an active future.

"It's hard for me to think of him in the past tense," MacKay said. "He was the kind of person that was very much involved and thinking about what he was going to do next."

MacKay, who has spent some 30 years in public life, is considered the most effective lieutenant governor in the state's history. A former state legislator and congressman, MacKay was put in charge of pressing issues in the Chiles administration, such as reforming Florida's social services agency.

Chiles spent several weeks on the campaign trail with MacKay this year. But even the governor's popularity could not help MacKay close the gap against Bush.

MacKay and Chiles shared their last conversation Thursday night, when the governor invited MacKay to join him on a favorite excursion.

"He said he had the opportunity to go quail hunting in the next couple of weeks," MacKay recalled.

It was MacKay who persuaded Chiles to run for governor 81/2 years ago. Their campaign promised to make Florida a community, and MacKay said he and Chiles talked recently about their eight years together. Chiles was content that he had done well, shifted the state's priorities to children and making government accountable even to "people who didn't have big, powerful lobbying interests."

"That gave me, personally, a lot of satisfaction, that he felt so good about what we had done," MacKay said. "He felt we really had accomplished a lot of what we had set out to do."

MacKay visited with Chiles' widow, Rhea, at the mansion early Sunday. He was touched that Chiles had enjoyed good, meaningful conversations recently with the people who mattered most to him.

"I had a chance to talk briefly to his family earlier (Sunday)," MacKay said. "They all said this is amazing, that this had come together in this way. That's one of the least sad parts of this."

Later Sunday, in a speech broadcast across the state with a crush of 20 television cameras rolling, MacKay urged Floridians to recognize Chiles' accomplishments.

"Sad as this time is, and even as we mourn the death of this great man, this is also a time to celebrate the gentle but lasting ways he changed our state and the lives of its people," MacKay said, his voice wavering.

MacKay alluded to Chiles' future plans, saying the governor never wanted to discuss his legacy because he "still had miles to go in his journey of service."

That legacy, MacKay said, lives on in children who will benefit from better health care and schools, in the state's natural resources and in the "hope that lives in the hearts of millions of people who believe as he did that we are at our best as a community and not as a crowd."

Said MacKay: "Our challenge is to keep his memory alive by sharing his commitment to helping others. We mourn the loss of one of Florida's favorite and best sons. There will never be another like him."

 

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