Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles Dies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page B6
Lawton Chiles, 68, the Florida Democrat who spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate before serving the past eight as governor--all the while gaining a reputation as a talented and folksy Southern statesman--died Dec. 12 in Tallahassee after an apparent heart attack.
Gov. Chiles, a Florida native and businessman, spent a dozen years in the state legislature before becoming the surprise winner of the 1970 U.S. Senate race. In three terms in the Senate--he retired in 1989--and two terms as governor, he was a good-humored champion of tax and health reform, fiscal common sense and respect for the voter.
Washington first saw Gov. Chiles as a politician who came out of nowhere--actually, out of Lakeland, Fla.--to win a Senate seat by hiking 1,033 miles from the panhandle town of Century down to the Florida Keys. Dressed in khakis, he walked the state for three months, shaking every hand in sight and filling nine thick notebooks with the thoughts of voters he met along the way. Some quipped that he hugged the middle of that road, rarely making anything like a controversial statement or taking a surprising stand.
But his quests for election reform and for "sunshine laws" that require government bodies to make their decisions in public, as well as his quest for solving important issues of the day through hard work and compromise, were not gimmicks. He eventually rose to the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, where his unfailing common sense, ability to work with ranking Republican committee members and grasp of the budget procedure gained admiration on both sides of the aisle.
A measure of the man might be in the reaction on Capitol Hill to news of his death. Members of the House Judiciary Committee paused in their noisy consideration of presidential impeachment to pay tribute to the fallen Floridian. The committee called for a minute of silence, after which its three Florida members--two of them Republicans--paid emotional tribute to their late governor.
The Democratic committee member, Robert Wexler, said, "Governor Chiles was, I think, in most Floridians' eyes, the epitome of a fine and decent man, a throwback to the age when partisanship didn't play the role it plays. . . . This man rose above party."
He might have been "above party," but he nonetheless relished an old fashioned partisan election battle. Some Florida reporters said that Gov. Chiles enjoyed campaigning much more than governing and that he was very good at pressing the flesh. This side of the governor was seen on something of a national stage in 1994.
It seemed that Democrats, especially governors, were in deep trouble across the country, and Gov. Chiles was facing a reelection challenge from Jeb Bush, a young, attractive son of former president George Bush.
Polls indicated that the Chiles magic may have run its course and that a new generation and a new party might be about to take center stage.
But Gov. Chiles rallied, lampooned his opponent as an amateur with no real knowledge of the state, its problems or its people. He warned his younger opponent that "the old he-coon walks just before the light of day," predicting his own savvy, come-from-behind victory. The Republicans made huge advances in Florida in 1994, winning the state Senate for the first time in a century, but they did not unseat Gov. Chiles.
The governor relished this above all victories, celebrating it by wearing a long raccoon coat at his inauguration.
He continued to oppose "vested interests," especially the tobacco industry, and to serve as a friend of the Everglades and of the very young and the very old. But he chose not to run for reelection this year.
Jeb Bush again ran for governor as the Republican nominee, defeating Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay (D) in the general election. MacKay will serve as governor until Bush takes office in January.
Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was born in Lakeland, where his father was a railroad worker. The younger Chiles recalled the excitement when, as a 10-year-old boy, he saw a political campaign come to town for the first time.
He graduated from the University of Florida and its law school, served as an Army artillery officer in Korea during the Korean War and engaged in business enterprises before winning election to the Florida House in 1958.
In 1970, "Walkin' Lawton" stormed the state, narrowly winning a primary run-off and a general election.
He twice won re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote. He never accepted contributions of more than $100 and never seemed to stop walking.
Gov. Chiles had been plagued by ill health. While in the Senate, he underwent major heart surgery. After leaving the Senate, he was treated for depression before returning to the political arena. In recent years, he suffered a minor stroke but did not stop hunting or fishing. He was found dead next to his cycling machine in the gymnasium of the governor's mansion.
He never lost a race.
Survivors include his wife, Rhea, and four children.
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