July 1, 2007

Walkin' Lawton

This blog details Florida's only highway with as many turkeys as people: the Walkin' Lawton Chiles trail. From Century to Tallahassee to Jacksonville to Orlando to Fort Lauderdale to Miami to Key Largo, you'll find milestones of his famous walk across Florida posted in the ground: state-issued, metal signs about as high as a stop sign. In Chiles' long career, he left tracks all across the state, and the ones without signposts are often the most interesting. Walking the trail, taking photos, studying boxes of archives, talking to friends and colleagues, recording old stories--these will be my passport to history.

Polk County state rep, state senator, U.S. senator, governor of Florida, Chiles never lost an election in 40 years of public service, and never won an election he didn't earn the grassroots, people-powered way. From his first race for state rep, when he and his wife Rhea knocked on over 13,000 doors, to his last and toughest election in 1994--when he morphed into the "He-Coon" of Southern folklore--he let anyone walk with him, and Floridians loved him for it. While his opponents yelled themselves hoarse on the phone with high-dollar donors, Chiles put on a new pair of boots and kept on walking.

His first great test of his populist convictions came in 1970, as he prepared to run for the open U.S. Senate seat once held by his boyhood hero Spessard Holland. Polk County state senator Lawton Chiles faced four opponents for the Democratic nomination, all better known and better funded. Rhea suggested that he walk across the state and connect with people directly--it sure worked in Polk County and didn't cost a dime. So Chiles packed up and headed for Century, a sawmill town along the Alabama border. His gut told him that people liked the walk, especially folks in the Panhandle who rarely saw politicians come their way. By the end he would know the story behind every polluted creek, half-done overpass, and flashing-light town from Century to Key West--blood knowledge of the average voter's mind that no senator could claim. One mile walked was worth a dozen well-placed TV spots. And one thousand miles and several pairs of boots later, Chiles became "Walkin' Lawton," an instant icon in Florida politics and the state's newest U.S. senator.

The walks continued in future campaigns. To make sure he heard everyone, he banned PAC money and out-of-state contributions; and limited donations to $10. He raised the limit to $100 in 1982 only to keep up with inflation.

His policy fights in the Florida legislature, U.S. senate and governor's office were as storied as his campaigns: the battle for Florida's legislative reapportionment, withdrawal from Vietnam, "government in the sunshine," children's health care, Everglades preservation, a long-shot bid to balance the federal budget in the Reagan Era, campaign finance and lobbying reform, closing a massive shortfall in Florida's budget, streamlining and reorganizing state government, recovery from Hurricane Andrew, and his final successful crusade against Big Tobacco.

When pundits, political professionals, and Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaign marked Governor Chiles as too old-fashioned, gray-haired, and folksy for Florida in 1994, Chiles reminded voters--especially those who met him on the Walk--which candidate knew Panhandle towns like Quincy, Jay, and Baker as well as Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. Behind in the polls against the son of a president, he picked a phrase from Southern folklore to express many voters' simmering suspicions about his opponent, cautioning Bush in the final televised debate of the campaign that "the ol' He-Coon walks just before the light of day." Speaking a bit of "cracker" in the debate would drive rural North Florida wild, and strength there combined with a triumph in South Florida would win the election for him. Perhaps he also bet that a bit of bravado would reassure anyone wondering if old age had dampened his zeal for service.

According to the lore, the "He-Coon" was the eldest and wisest of a pack of raccoons. He knew to wait until the break of day, when the hunting dogs were tired of running, before venturing out to forage. The ancient appeal to wisdom baffled many Floridians--Jeb Bush most of all--but became the eccentric theme of the Chiles campaign's final push. On the Election Day when the Gingrich Revolution swept dozens of veteran Democrats out of office across the country, Governor Chiles made good on his warning to Bush. He leveraged every relationship built in thirty-six years of walking, talking, listening, and policymaking to win an upset re-election.

For the inaugural party, the mayor of Tallahassee opened the streets to everyone who had "Walked a Mile for Chiles." Supporters and Tally residents gathered in t-shirts proclaiming "the He-Coon Walks..." They chowed down "He-Coon stew" sold by street vendors and chanted "He-Coon, He-Coon" as they followed their governor--dressed in khakis and a coonskin jacket--on his victory walk through downtown Tallahassee. The outdoor festival made the front page of every daily in the state, and pretty soon no one cared what the heck a He-Coon was.

From Polk County to Walkin' Lawton to the He-Coon, the work of biography happily begins...


Anonymous said...

Biased source though I may be, there is also some value to being completely naive in regards to Chiles and the entire swath of recent Florida democratic politics he inhabited; as such, I can enjoyed being pulled in to his story with all the freshness and surprise of a first-time reader. Hopefully this blog, and the biography that follows, will help re-ignite the love for place in our younger generations of politicos, so that even as we surge to the polls and vote, we keep our eyes on the signs of health in our home, both the people and the resources they live from.

William MOREE said...

Many in the know in Florida say that this is the reason George W., instead of Jeb Bush, is currently President of the United States. If Jeb had won in 1994, when nearly every other Republican won their race, then he, instead of George W., would have been the Presidential nominee.

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Anonymous said...

I met Lawton Chiles walking on the beach of Dog Island, an island located south of Tallahassee in the Gulf of Mexico, and I will tell you he was not all politics, he loved the state of Florida the way a child loves Christmas on Christmas morning. When I met him he was by himself, and he was walking.