September 27, 2007

The Rush of Early Victory

Lawton M. Chiles Jr. got his start in public office on Primary Day, September 9 1958.

"Yellow dog" Democrats ruled the political doghouse in Polk County, and Chiles faced no opposition in the general election. Most folks in Fort Meade, Bartow, and Lakeland would vote for a yellow dog before they'd vote for some carpetbagger, lily-livered, phosphate-hating Republican. But Polk County was changing. Young progressive professionals were more and more tiring of the well-fed Pork Chop legislative majority in Tallahassee. Young doctors, lawyers, and businessmen in Lakeland and Bartow placed their hopes in a 28-year-old lawyer named Lawton Chiles.

Chiles, Reuben Askew, and other upstart populists brought new ideas to the legislature and pushed it from the spittoon 'n cracker politics into something resembling modernity. Some called them the Lamp Choppers in contrast to the Pork Choppers and fat cats. Some called them nuts.
I imagine some were just glad to see something new in Tallahassee.

Election Night that November must have been special, since he could be at home with his family, put his feet up, and watch the Democrats win a landslide victory in the race for U.S. Congress--including his hero Florida Senator Spessard Holland. Soon, the country's reaction to the Eisenhower Era would culminate with the narrow election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency.

The Lakeland Ledger editorial gushed with praise for the young walking state representative-elect who "got out and shook hands all over the county, giving everybody a warm smile and asking everybody to vote for him. Voters like such attention. It is a human factor that comes ahead of everything else in politics. Each voter, no matter what his station in life, likes to feel important, and is important, especially on election day.

"It is simply not in Surles' nature to loosen up and shake hands all around in the spontaneous manner of an extrovert, as he and all his friends have recognized. He had amply proved himself over the years as an able and thorough lawyer and legislator but the people wanted personal attention during the campaign season, and so Surles' accumulation of 10 years of seniority in the Legislature was erased by a neophyte in politics who had the valuable knack of communicating himself to voters in a personal way.

"It is a personality factor that can carry Chiles far in politics..."

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