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Lessons from 'Walkin' Lawton' Childes in new biography

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 07:29 PM

It's hard to imagine in today's political climate, but Florida fairly recently had a governor who was not afraid to talk about raising taxes.

He didn't meet and mingle with the common folks by doing monthly "work days" like Bob Graham or Rick Scott, or call himself the "people's governor" as Charlie Crist did. He just walked around among us. As a major part of his Senate campaign, he hiked about 1,000 miles to the very pinnacle of Florida politics in 1970, served 18 years in the U.S. Senate and then quit because, among other things, he was sick of the constant demand for raising money that is part of a Congress member's daily existence.

Then, less than two years later, he came back and became governor. His way.

Lawton Chiles was different. He called his approach to government "more steering, less rowing" from Tallahassee, and spoke of "right-sizing" state agencies, rather than "down-sizing." The last Democrat elected governor, he had the misfortune to take office just as Republicans were taking over the Legislature, but that didn't stop him from proposing new revenue sources with names like "the investment budget" or "reality budget."

He advanced health care for children, beat Big Tobacco out of billions and spoke candidly of his personal bout with depression. He gave speaking turns to a few average citizens during his inaugural address, spoke admiringly of Czech leader Vaclav Havel, served fresh orange juice to the GOP presiding officers in the Capitol rotunda at the end of a legislative session and mystified friend and foe alike with aphorisms like "the he coon walks just before the light of day."

He played the aw-shucks country boy from "Imperial Polk County" when it suited him, but he could follow you into revolving door and come out first. He frankly admitted he had reached the "don't give a damn" stage of life: He didn't need the money or power or prestige, wasn't running for any higher office, so he just did what he thought was best.

Having raised money and run campaigns, he sometimes said his concept of ethics reform was, if you want a good game warden, hire a reformed poacher -- "reformed" being the operative word.

If you didn't like it, you could vote for somebody else. A lot of people did. Chiles was re-elected by fewer than 65,000 votes in 1994 -- barely beating a fella named Jeb Bush in the year of the "Gingrich Revolution," when Republicans wiped out virtually every other old-line Democrat in the country. It was a second term that, sadly, Chiles was not to complete. He died at the Governor's Mansion 23 days before the inauguration of Bush, who made a comeback against Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay in 1998.

An important, entertaining new biography of Chiles has just been written by John Dos Passos Coggin, who spent years interviewing more than 100 Chiles associates to produce a detailed narrative from Chiles' boyhood in Lakeland to his death at age 67. "Walkin' Lawton," published by the Florida Historical Society Press in Cocoa, reads like oral history, rather than biography, a series of conversations with those who worked for, with or against Chiles over the years.

A grandson of the famous author whose name he bears, Coggin is a graduate of Yale and the University of Maryland school of public policy. He lives in Annapolis and worked in the Howard Dean campaign for president in 2004, then moved to Orlando to work with the League of Conservation Voters for Sen. John Kerry. That's where he heard about Chiles and became interested in his unique, colorful career.

Coggin found there was not much scholarly research about him, so he approached the Chiles family. First Lady Rhea Chiles wrote a cover blurb and such old friends as former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who served with Chiles in Washington and contributed a warm introduction for the book.

As most politically interested Floridians know, Chiles was a state legislator from Lakeland in the 1950s and 1960s, when the rural "Pork Chop Gang" was slowly, unwillingly yielding to the legal and historical forces of redistricting, urbanization and integration of post-War Florida. In 1970, the little-known state senator walked from the Alabama border town of Century to the tip of the Florida peninsula, talking and listening to whomever he met and beating the incumbent House speaker and a former governor for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination.

After three terms, Chiles retired from the Senate and could have had a high-pay, low-work faculty sinecure at Florida State University. But in 1990, with Republican Gov. Bob Martinez very vulnerable but then-Congressman (now U.S. Senator) Bill Nelson looking unlikely to beat him, Chiles came out of retirement and teamed up with MacKay as the Democratic "dream ticket." They limited their campaign contributions to $100 per donor (upstaging lesser-known pols who couldn't afford such virtue), wore Madras plaid, walked around town squares and easily ousted Martinez in 1990.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It's usually not good for biographers to admire their subjects, but Coggin makes it work. "Walkin' Lawton" is a valuable contribution for students of Florida history too young to remember Chiles – and an enjoyable, authoritative look back for those of us who knew him.


Bill Cotterell is a retired reporter who covered Florida government and politics for 44 years with United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at billcotterell@gmail.com.
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