August 18, 2007

Chiles and His Florida: Lake Hollingsworth

Lake Hollingsworth is one of many lakes in and around Lakeland, Florida. Chiles grew up fishing, swimming, canoeing these lakes. While he grew up on Lake Morton, Lake Hollingsworth is a short walk away. Lawton and Rhea raised their children near Hollingsworth.

Thankfully, even today, Lakeland is not all golden arches and all-you-can-eat Sizzlers. Especially if you're around to catch the sunset on Lake Hollingsworth.

August 17, 2007

"It's All About Bucks, Kid"

...Gordon Gekko's sophistry still works today. Mitt Romney is a disciple.


Top Contributors

Goldman Sachs $175,975

Merrill Lynch $124,250

Marriott International $113,050

Bain Capital $107,600

Bain & Co $99,400

Morgan Stanley $91,800

Kirkland & Ellis $84,100

Citigroup Inc $75,100

Compuware Corp $73,650

Hig Capital $71,175

American Financial Group $70,200

JP Morgan Chase & Co $62,150

Affiliated Managers Group $58,762

Staples Inc $58,550

PricewaterhouseCoopers $58,200

Ropes & Gray $57,300

E*TRADE Financial $52,900

Lehman Brothers $52,150 UBS

Americas $49,350

Energy Solutions $47,900

(Credit: OpenSecrets.Org)


True, the average voter speaks to Romney. Wall Street just speaks louder.

Now let's look at the Chiles legacy. Even as he contemplated a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, politics the Chiles way was still a family affair. Although he ultimately decided to retire, disillusioned by his hours haranguing to an empty gallery about the federal budget deficit, his family was ready and excited about another gutsy grassroots campaign. Bud Chiles, Lawton's eldest son, would handle the media and TV spots. His other son Ed would help organize the hundreds of $100 donations necessary just to pay for lawn signs. Tandy, his eldest daughter, would help in Orange County with volunteer mobilization. His youngest daughter, Rhea, would help. Even the grandkids pitched in. Above all, his wife Rhea took the lead in marshaling the massive volunteer network that Chiles had to conjure months and months before Election Day. The family fought hard over whether to keep the $100-a-head limit, but Lawton was firm. The limit on contributions, like the Walk in 1970, was his special bond with Floridians.

He must have loved the fact that his network of family advisers was always worth a thousand Karl Roves.

More than Bricks and Mortars

This is a shot of the Lakeland high school that Chiles attended in the 1940s, while his boyhood hero Spessard Holland was governor of Florida.

In 1999, it was renamed "Lawton Chiles Middle Academy" in his honor.

If you go to Crestview, Florida, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a building of some sort or a bridge or road named after the late Congressman Bob Sikes.

Except for the signposts along the path of the Walk, the Walkin' Trail, there isn't much at all named after Chiles--except schools.

As he said, "The answer to all our pressing problems, begins with a child." The way he saw it, all the intractable social problems bearing down on Florida from crime to teen pregnancy flowed from gross neglect at the very beginning of life.

His lawsuit against Big Tobacco at the end of the governor years was part of making good on his covenant with Florida's children--building a "constituency of children" and a voice in government.
Controversy about education spending, curriculum, teacher pay, and school overcrowding rarely made him popular, especially when he attacked the $1.5 billion budget shortfall facing his administration his first year as governor with harsh cuts. But he made good on his promise to invest in the next generation; the more than $10 billion settlement won in his fight against Big Tobacco saw to that.

From Orlando to Lakeland to Tallahassee, schools bear his name. Not a single "bridge to nowhere" or even an "exit to nowhere" on the highway.

August 16, 2007

Wall Street vs Margaritaville

In Lawton Chiles' campaigns for U.S. Senate and governor, when he heard that one of his opponents was holding a black tie, $1,000-a-plate Wall street-bankrolled gala at some swanky convention center, he would call up Jimmy Buffet and throw a block party in the parking lot--$10 for all the finger-lickin' fried chicken you could handle. He would raise pittance at these events, but the next day the newspapers would shower him with loving coverage and by the time everyone had finished reading all the free, margarita-soaked media, he had won the election!

Take a look at the donor list for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.

Top Contributors

DLA Piper $293,400
Citigroup Inc $160,500
EMILY's List $138,953
Skadden, Arps et al $134,960
Goldman Sachs $134,050
Cablevision Systems $116,575
Kirkland & Ellis $116,550
Morgan Stanley $113,700
Viacom Inc $102,500
Greenberg Traurig LLP $100,200
Time Warner $98,100
Blank Rome LLP $96,500
Merrill Lynch $96,100
Patton Boggs $88,600
Bear Stearns $87,450

Check out a sampling of Lawton Chiles' donor list for his 1994 gubernatorial campaign.

Top Contributors

Bettie Barkdull $100
Halley Lewis $100
Tom Herndon $100
Marie Herndon $25
Russ Barakat $100
Lee Barakat $100
Delores Ohara-Spearman $100
J. Hardin Peterson $100
Nancy Peterson $100
Guy Spearman III $100
John W. Lewis $100


Notice a trend? A lot of people dismissed this strategy as a flash-in-the-pan, phony operation, as if it were hatched in some laboratory under perfect conditions in some small island nation.

But when Chiles won re-election to the Florida governorship in 1994 with a $100-a-head contribution limit, it was already the fourth-largest state in the Union and one of the biggest economies in the world. Miami was a commercial capital of the Americas; Orlando the number one tourist destination in the country; and West Palm Beach and Sarasota were some of the hottest retirement spots in the country.

Maybe there was some magic in that coonskin cap of his. Maybe it was just the courage to take a risk.

(Note from the Author: This the first in a new series of posts comparing Chiles' successful grass-roots campaign style to that of the 2008 presidential hopefuls)

Polk County's Place in Florida's Gangland

So whether you grew up in Tallahassee, Pensacola, or Polk County, your views on race were shaped by those surroundings. Being inside or outside the Cotton Belt mattered. Is there any other reason why Polk County's location mattered? Probably.

Look at the map. Polk County is almost exactly in the center of the state. Practically speaking, it allows you equal access to North and South Florida, and you're smack in the middle of prime political real estate--the "swing voter capital of the world" AKA the I-4 Corridor.

Further, if you're walking the state from Century to the Florida Keys, you've got another advantage. Consider the following fictional example from the 1970 campaign trail.


Lawton Chiles: "Hi, I'm Lawton Chiles, the Walking Senator. What can you tell me I should be thinking about as candidate for the U.S. Senate?"

North Florida voter: "Where are you from?"

Chiles: "Polk County."

North Florida voter: "Thank god you ain't another crook from Miami!"

Farther along the walk, near Miami, he runs into a voter...she asks the same question.

South Florida voter: "Thank god you ain't another crook from the Panhandle!"


Play this scene over and over again and you get a sense of one of decades-long regional rivalry between Florida's diverse, distant political poles. If Chiles had been from Orlando, just a half hour away from Lakeland, he may not have had as much luck, since he would've been associated with that political-economic behemoth in the eyes of Miami and Panhandle voters.

But sleepy little citrus-and-phosphate Polk County tucked in the middle of Central Florida gave him the political equivalent of neutral gang colors as he hit the road for the biggest gamble of his political life...

August 15, 2007

Carter, Chiles, Lakeland, and the Civil War

Another fork in the road where the Chiles and Carter stories diverge is Civil War history. Lawton Chiles' hometown of Lakeland has no Civil War history.

Apart from the farm, Carter's "infatuation" with Georgia's red clay soil came from Civil War history:

I've often wondered why were so infatuated with the land, and I think there is a strong tie to the Civil War, or was we called it, the War Between the States. Although I was born more than half a century after the war was over, it was a living reality in my life. I grew up in one of the families whose people could not forget that we had been conquered, while most of our neighbors were black people whose grandparents had been liberated in the same conflict. Our two races, although inseparable in our daily lives, were kept apart by social custom, misinterpretation of Holy Scriptures, and the unchallenged law of the land as mandated by the United States Supreme Court.

In most Southern states, especially in the Deep South, major towns and cities from Jackson to Mobile to Plains to Savannah suffer from residential, political, and cultural divides going back to the Civil War. Just after the Civil War, neighborhoods, businesses, and schools in the South began to follow the law of Jim Crow, and when they weren't at each others throats blacks and whites canceled each others votes at the ballot box--if blacks made it that far. Southern blacks and small cadre of liberal whites voted Republican; conservative and moderate whites voted Democrat to stick it to the North. Their children kept the tradition alive even though none remembered what it was like to put on blue and gray uniforms and kill their neighbors, family, and countrymen. To this day, you've got historically black neighborhoods as far north as Maryland's Eastern Shore and black settlements that began as slave's quarters. It isn't written anywhere or spoken in clear terms, but whites don't walk those streets much even now. Port Street in Easton, Maryland is an example. Or Pine Street in Cambridge, MD. The barricades and gunsmoke may be gone but political fights along racial lines continue...

But Lakeland wasn't settled until after the Civil War in the 1870s and wasn't incorporated until 1885. The railroad tracks divided the town racially and economically. But relative to other Southern towns, Lakeland integrated its schools with little violence.

Maybe this explains partly why civil rights reform never topped Chiles' agenda in the state legislature. The Civil War means a lot more to you in the South if you remember the Union soldiers burning your town. There may be a Confederate statue in Munn Park, but no one born in Lakeland claims any memory of Northern occupation of their town. Without roots in the Civil War or a plantation/sharecropping/slave economy, racial politics may become less of a bramble.

Reuben Askew, who won the governorship the same year (1970) that Chiles won his U.S. Senate bid, hails from Pensacola, which is closer to Mobile, Alabama than to the Tallahassee, Florida. Askew got farther in front on civil rights issues in the 60s and 70s than Chiles ever did. LeRoy Collins, the Florida governor who set the tone for civil rights in Florida and wagered his political career on reconciliation, grew up Tallahassee--smack in the middle of the Old Cotton Belt.

It isn't the whole story, but as Carter says, "Land, Farm, and Place" can tell you a lot about race, politics, and the South. And if there is no story to tell, that's important, too.

"Land, Farm, and Place"

...that's the title of the first chapter in Jimmy Carter's An Hour Before Daylight: Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood. Carter loved his family farm so much that he couldn't help but begin telling his story by situating Plains, Georgia geographically:

If you leave Savannah on the coast and travel on the only U.S. highway that goes almost straight westward across the state of Georgia, you will cross the Ogeechee, Oconee, and Ocmulgee rivers, all of which flow to the south and east and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. After about three hours you'll cross the Flint River, the first stream that runs in a different direction, and eventually its often muddy waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, our "divide" is not noticeable, because the land was all part of the relatively flat bottom of the sea in the not-too-distant geological past. It is still rich and productive, thanks to the early ocean sediments and the nutrients it has accumulated from plants and animals since that time.

If you keep on for another thirty miles, still heading toward Columbus, Georgia; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and points beyond, you'll come to Plains, a small town on land as level as any you will ever see.

Especially for people who grow up on a farm, those surroundings can become more than just a home. They're part of your family, your blood. You remember the magnolia trees you climbed as a child, the crows who laughed at you when you were pissed off at you parents, and if you worked the land--the feeling of sun-baked earth between your fingers. You also know what it's like for your stomach to moan when you see how brown the corn is during drought.

There is a romance to that story of a Southern farm boyhood--especially if you're white and there was a limit to how hard life got for you.

But this is not Chiles' story.

His first years in the world were in as big town was there was in Polk County, Florida in the 1930s--Lakeland. He lived more than a hundred miles south of the Cotton Belt counties of North Florida. As far as I know, the citrus and strawberry farms surrounding Lakeland weren't even sharecropped by poor whites. Farming was black labor.

The land may not have shaped his views on race like in the Carter memoirs, but nature was important to Chiles. The hunting and fishing that filled the hours of his boyhood seeded the passion for conservation that grew all his political life. In his last years, he bought a 250-acre farm outside Tallahassee so he could walk in the woods and clear his head when he wanted--or bag a turkey or two. He never talked politics on the hunt. Why go to the woods if you were gonna bring the office with you?

For that reason, the land may figure into the Chiles story as much as Carter's.

August 14, 2007

Politics in Munn Park

Apart from the hot dog stand, the other more established historical tradition in Lakeland's Munn Park is an election-time event called "Politics in the Park." Like the Ames Iowa poll last weekend, it's a straw poll. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the event brings together Florida's candidates from U.S. Senate all the way down to Polk County commissioner. Folks buy tickets and vote on a "straw" ballot and politicos get a chance to mingle and sweat with Lakeland voters. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson attended, as did then-Congresswoman Katherine Harris.

Thing is, it's rigged. Even back when Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles vied for votes in the 1994 straw poll, it was even more of a spectacle than these sorts of things usually are. The local GOP bought tickets like crazy--hundreds. Then the Chiles campaign responded and bought more tickets. Then the GOP returned fire. Ultimately the Bush people won out. As it has grown, Lakeland and the rest of Polk County has followed the rest of the old Solid South into the arms of the Republican Party. Silly as it is, at least the chicanery got more people to the event and involved in the election.

It hurt Governor Chiles to lose his hometown vote for the first time in years. But he knew by then that Democratic statewide victory in Florida came in two flavors--Dade and Broward. Even if he lost Lakeland's vote, he had earned their respect.

Return to Munn Park

Since Munn Park was remodeled and beautified in 1989 to give it more of the old-fashioned town square look, there isn't much these days in terms of actual culture to remind you of what the Park must have been like in its heyday when it was genuinely the bustling center of town. I like to think of this hot dog stand as the heart and soul of present-day Munn Park. This guy could sell you a hot dog morning, noon and night. "Hot dog, chili dog, whoo!" I was looking around for a place to eat when I visited, killing time before an interview. The hot dog man put so much moxie into his crew call that I had to stop. As he put the onions on mine and other dogs, he reassured us "mmm-mmm, this goin' be good, mmm-hmmm." He wasn't wrong. Nice price, too.

The Confederate battle statue erected in 1910 in tribute to the war dead. Florida was one of the first states to secede after South Carolina. Tallahassee also boasts the title of the only Southern capital not to fall to Union forces. Very little happened of strategic importance in Civil War Florida, but the lore is still rich. A quick drive south from Tallahassee takes you to the Battle of Natural Bridge site. It was little more than a skirmish between a few hundred Union regulars and a small band of Confederate teenagers from what is now Woodville. The boys held their ground and Tally was never taken.

By the Battle of Natural Bridge in March 1865, Union forces had already won at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and conquered most of the South. A month after defending Tallahassee, Confederate forces in Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia surrendered to William Sherman. Robert E. Lee then surrendered and the war ended.
Lawton's father, Lawton M. Chiles Sr., was a railroad conductor at the local railroad station. He could have walked to work, and probably never really left work since the station is close enough he probably could have heard the trains come and go all hours. Still not sure if his father's job had any marked influence on Lawton Jr.'s career ambitions.

August 13, 2007

The Governor's Transition Handbook

Florida TaxWatch is a 25-year-old non-profit tax/gov't waste watchdog based in Tallahassee that puts out--along with other sponsors--a 60 page booklet on the basics of the Florida governorship as of 2006. Beware, it's a PDF file.

To understand what Governor Chiles accomplished, you've got to put it in context. More once I read and digest the handbook.

Of course, with 60 pages of jargon you can get lost in esoterica just explaining the Cabinet. But there is a clear way to talk about it. It just takes more work to get to that level of understanding.

The Governor's Whistle

Governor Chiles said he loved being in the executive because the game didn't start until he blew the whistle. Part of that executive authority is the right to a state airplane for public travel.

My arrival in Tallahassee by commercial flight tonight got me thinking about the state airplane and Chiles' use of it during the recovery from Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The state plane may be a vanity exercise and pomp and circumstance in other states--not in Florida.

Florida is a massive state and the difference in culture and miles between Pensacola and Tallahassee and Miami and Orlando is big enough that they could be separate states.

A state plane is a practical necessity of being governor of Florida.

Florida will soon be the third-largest state in the Union.

August 12, 2007

Back on the Trail

The next month will bring an end to my collection of press clips from the St. Petersburg Times, as well as trips to Lakeland and the Panhandle--as far as Century. I will be searching for old-timers who remember meeting Chiles on the Walk and can supply anecdotes describing his integrity, humor, and compassion.

I spent some time in the woods and on the river, away from everything. I did continue to turn over in my mind one concept: the stereotype.

I guess in a literary context we use the term archetype sometimes, but whatever the name, the point is that before a book is even written you've gotta forget about the frills, the bells and whistles, the alliteration.

Because before you put one blot of ink on the paper the reader is living in a world of stereotypes. The Berkeley professor George Lakoff would call them frames, or ways of thinking about ideas and people that are ingrained, second nature, instinct. For example, maybe you've always grown up thinking that Republicans look like dogs, and that's why you don't like them. Or maybe you saw a documentary or read a book on godless Democrats and the image stuck. Regardless, we've all got corners of your thoughts that are so homey and comfortably set up that we keep 'em the way they are at all costs--the truth be damned.

So I have a question; what does the phrase "Southern Democrat" conjure up for you? What adjectives? Don't take long, just a casual thought.

For me, I think of Bill Clinton and all his faults and hugs-for-everyone charisma.

Then think about what you know about Lawton Chiles. The difference may surprise you.