As far as politicians go, Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was different.
The folksy Southern gentleman, was known for making political decisions based on what he thought was right and not on polls. He took pride in relating to the people who he represented. He wasn’t afraid to take on challenges and fight for something he believed in.
He was a throwback to a time when bipartisanship wasn’t a bad word in politics.
Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of the man who came to be known as “Walkin Lawton,” Florida’s 41st governor. Members of his family and administration gathered in Tallahassee Tuesday to remember the man who made public service his life and was proud of the accomplishments he made during that service.
Chiles died of a heart attack on Dec. 12, 1998, at the Governor’s Mansion, just 23 days before the end of his second and final term as governor.
It was a Saturday.
Kitty Chiles, the governor’s daughter-in-law, remembers receiving the news at her home in New York.
“It was horrible,” she said. Her husband, Bud, had left to help a family with a sick child. In an era before cell phones she had no way to reach him. The news of Gov. Chiles death was already on the radio and friends started to gather at their home.
“So, finally, he comes home after dark and he says to all of our friends, ‘are we having a party?’” Kitty recalls. “I said no. You need to come upstairs. I think that was just the worst thing I have ever had to do was tell him,” she said fighting back tears.”
Born near Lakeland in Polk County on April 3, 1930, Chiles began his career in politics in 1958 when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. He served in the House until 1966, when he won a seat in the Florida Senate.
In 1970, he embarked on a campaign for the U.S. Senate for which he earned the nickname Walkin Lawton. Facing some tough competition, stuck in the single digits in the polls and not a lot of money in his pocket, Chiles decided to take a 1,003 mile walk across Florida — from the panhandle town of Century to the Florida Keys — in an effort to make himself known to voters.
“A lot of people feel like, you known, the walk was a gimmick and I guess in some sense it was a gimmick,” said eldest son Bud Chiles, who walked with his father along a good part of the route. “But, what I saw at that early age was as he was walking along he was shaking hundreds of hands a day. He’s talking with people. It was pretty extraordinary at that time in 1970.”
The walk across Florida took 91 days and when it was over, it earned Chiles a walk into the chambers of the U.S. Senate, defeating U.S. Rep. William Cramer of St. Petersburg, the first Republican to have served in Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.
“When he got to the United States Senate, as a result of the walk, one of the things that really propelled him early on in the Senate was that time-and-time again Senators would come to him and talk to him about issues because they knew he had the pulse of the average guy,” Bud Chiles recalled. “And that’s something he continued throughout his years, he came back and walked.”
Chiles served three terms in the Senate. In 1985, he underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery. After his recovery, he became increasingly frustrated with the Senate process saying it was too difficult to get anything done in Congress. He announced in December 1987 that he would not seek re-election the next year.
Chiles returned to Florida but did not remain out of politics for very long. Supporters, led by former Congressman Buddy MacKay, talked him into running for the governor in 1990, a seat held by Republican Bob Martinez. He defeated Democrat Bill Nelson in the primary and then went on to defeat Martinez, with MacKay as his running mate.
Four years later he was challenged by Republican Jeb Bush in a close contest. It was during a debate with Bush that Chiles delivered perhaps his most notable line of his political career. It came during a heated exchange in which Bush accused Chiles of being a liberal and not telling the truth.
“The old he-coon walks just before the light of day,” Chiles fired back, implying he would come from behind to win the governor’s race.
Chiles did win by a narrow 64,000 vote margin.
During his years in elected office, Chiles was known for fighting for children’s issues and healthcare.
It was during his second term as governor Chiles and his allies in the Legislature managed to sneak through legislation that stripped tobacco companies of their traditional legal defenses.
The new law made it easier for the state to sue cigarette companies to recover the more than $400 million the state was paying each year to treat tobacco-related illnesses among Floridians.
Faced with the prospects of Florida winning a lawsuit under the new law, tobacco companies agreed to a historic multi-billion dollar settlement. A key component of the agreement was that a third of prevention dollars from the settlement be used to directly counter the tobacco industry’s marketing of its products in Florida to young people.
“They were able to hammer out a deal that was really a landmark agreement and turned the tide in respect to the fight against big tobacco,” said Jon Moyle, Chiles’ legislative director.
Chiles is the last Democrat to be elected governor. Bud Chiles says part of the blame lies with the Florida Democratic Party for not developing new candidates and building a “farm team.” But he finds hope in the issues the party is rallying behind, including health care, the environment and gun control. He says there’s a political energy behind those issues that Democrats can tap into.
“We got a very fragile environment in this state that is at risk,” said Ed Chiles, the youngest son. “We got a $900 billion economy that’s at risk … and people have got their hair on fire about it.”
Today’s political world is far different from the one their father left 20 years ago. The family says Chiles would be upset seeing what’s going on in politics and government today.
“I think all of us in the family are kind of glad he’s not around to see what’s going on now,” the oldest Chiles son said. “I think he would have been very, very frustrated. Very upset.”