September 22, 2007

In My Day We Called Them "Turkeys"

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) is at it again, this time targeting "loopholes" in the state's tax code--real estate recordation and transfer taxes--that benefit mega-corporations at the expense of the larger community.

In Governor Chiles' Florida, 1990-1998, those myriad loopholes and special pork provisions in the tax code went by the name "turkeys."

Turkey-hunting was a favorite pastime for Governor Chiles, with and without a rifle.

Once he was inaugurated in January 1991, he immediately pledged to deliver the state's first "turkeyless" budget, incurring the wrath of many a Republican and conservative Democrat.

His fight made him so many enemies, no wonder he went to the woods so many times to bag a few gobblers.

Walkin' for Virginia's State Senate: Chap Petersen

He may not be walking the state of Virginia, but VA State Senate Democratic candidate Chap Petersen is getting the grassroots goin', to the tune of 12,000 doors knocked.

That's how to get rid of PAC-Man, Chiles-style. Check out his new campaign ad to see him in action.

He doesn't mention how many dogs he has met. He must not have had many problems. Fairfax County, Virginia 2007 is a long way from Polk County, Florida 1958.

September 21, 2007

The Shoestring Campaign

That's right. Chiles spent $25.55 in travel expenses, $50 for qualifying and a $100 self donation. This report was for July, two months before the primary in September.

Dirt, dogs, doorbells, and lots of back-country roads...those were his ticket to victory in his first bid for state representative from Polk County in 1958.

No TV ads, no radio, no internet.

Just face-to-face grip and grin.

And some old-fashioned teamwork, with Lawton taking one side of the street and wife Rhea the other.

Rhea got bit by dogs four times! She also got her shoes stuck in wet asphalt, and almost left them there. She threw 'em away when she got home.

They would leave in the morning about 8AM and get back by sundown about 6PM.

Bud Chiles, 5 at the time, would answer the phone more often than not as head of the household--while his parents campaigned. "They've gone champagning," he would say.

September 20, 2007

The Old Yawn of $1.5 billion

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed a revision of the income tax to make it more progressive, as part of his larger strategy of handling the massive budget deficit.

If it passed the legislature, it would be the first overhaul of the income tax code in 40 years.

Even though Maryland Democrats hold a commanding lead in the state legislature, taxes are taxes and when you need 'em to go up once in a while they're slow as molasses runnin' up a hill. Florida Democrats were not less trouble when Governor Lawton Chiles challenged them in the early 1990s.

As many interesting similarities as there are between the approximately $1.5 billion deficit in Maryland now and Florida then, I find one difference to be the most compelling.

That is: the age of the governor managing it.

MD Governor Martin O'Malley is 44 years old, and will be 52 at the end of two terms--if he chooses to go that route. Plenty of time to run for the U.S. Senate or become a Cabinet Secretary under a Democratic White House, or run for president himself.

Lawton Chiles aged from 60 to 68 while governor of Florida from 1990 to 1998. He knew he had miles to go in his political career, and was working with Bill Clinton on a Latin American envoy post at the White House. Mainly though, he was looking forward to Christmas with his family. He never wanted to call the White House home, and by the time he was governor he had served in the U.S. Senate for three terms already.

I suspect that Florida always got Chiles' full attention every minute he governed. And he made decisions with the smiling confidence of a man at the end of a long career, sure of his cause, and ready to dig in for a fight with the Marlboro Man, the Democratic legislature, and the Republican legislature. Not every 60-year-old claims the activity of conscience that thrived in Governor Chiles, and that makes his enterprise all the more satisfying from the point of view of a reader and writer. With nothing at the end of the road but a happy family life, he could shut out Big Sugar, Big Citrus, Big Real Estate, and every other angling interest and just do the job that he had walked a thousand miles to do.

To pull it together, you might say Governor Chiles governed with the energy of a 44-year-old and the wisdom of a 60-year-old.

September 19, 2007

Walkin' Lawton's First Walk

From his first bid for public office, this Lakeland Ledger ad he paid for on September 4th 1958 shows him just before he clobbered incumbent state representative Roy Surles in an upset victory.

Lawton and Rhea knocked on some 13,500 doors in Polk County and corralled a team of volunteers to leave reminder palm cards on the doors of voters the night before Democratic Primary Day, September 9th.

Once Lawton had won the Primary, there was no doubt he would carry the General.

Polk County was full of "yellow dog" Democrats back then.

Many young professionals in Lakeland saw Chiles as one of them, part of a new generation of folksy progressive politicians ready to challenge the calcified legislature leadership--known as the "Pork Chop Gang."

PAC-Man vs Lawton Chiles

In his post today, "Tim Kaine is a Super Money Machine," Raising Kaine blogger Lowell Feld trumpets Virginia Governor Kaine's barnstorming fundraising binge on behalf of the state's candidates for the General Assembly.

All the money goes into Kaine's Political Action Committee, "Moving Virginia Forward," including funds from a $1 million fundraiser soon at Pentagon City.

Made me wonder: did Chiles ever start a "Walkin' PAC" or "He-Coons Together" outfit? I know that he never took PAC money for himself, but perhaps a reason why the Florida Democratic Party crumbled so quickly after he died--beyond its rampant incompetence and disorder--was the lack of a statewide PAC to funnel cash to Dems running for a seat in the state legislature. If so, it's a poor excuse.

When politicians can't muster the creativity, guts, or determination to say "NO" to PAC-Man, it's easy to just blame PAC-Man.

Chiles and His Florida: Tallahassee

In all fuss about small-town Panhandle lore and Lawton Chiles, it's easy to forget Tallahassee.

I realized that the other day at a doctor's appointment in town.

The nurse asked me what I did and explained my project. She said she once had Governor Chiles over for dinner. Said he was one of the nicest people she ever met and she has a picture at home still of the occasion. She and her husband at the time made venison stroganoff for him, with a freshly caught deer. Instead of milk, she used yogurt to suit his diet requirements.

She said she still remembered his great smile.

He left big footprints in the capital city, just like every stop on highway 90 from Century to Monticello.

September 18, 2007

Speaking Cracker

Huey "Kingfish" Long and Lawton "He-Coon" Chiles could rustle up a good word when needed.


"Listen, there are smarter guys than I am, but not in Louisiana"

"slick as polecat grease"

"more trouble than a boat can haul"

"as hungry as a seed tick"

"as crooked as a boar shoat's tail"

"a neck like a cushaw and a head like a gourd"

Walkin' Lawton:

"I didn't come here to stay, I came to make a difference"

"Even a blind hog will root out an acorn once in a while"

"A cut dog barks"

"It's a sorry frog who won't holler in his own pond"

"We've got to go to the lick log"

"the Ole He-Coon walks just before the light of day"

Al Gore once recalled a time he saw former Texas governor Ann Richards and Chiles hanging out together, trading crackerisms. A Tennessee farm boy himself, Gore thought he had heard it all. He was wrong.

September 17, 2007

Kingfish vs. He-Coon

One of the most charismatic Southern politicians in American history of course is Huey P. Long, governor and U.S. senator from Louisiana. He could spin a yarn with just as many strands and colors as Lawton Chiles.

But the Kingfish's best stories were mostly lies that have slipped into legend. Chiles liked to call his stories "cracker"--meaning they were just the truth, plain-spoken, nothing extra.

If you check out a couple books on Long you'll find this oldie. This re-telling is from Pols: Great Writers on American Politicians from Bryan to Reagan, edited by Jack Beatty:

The first time that Huey P. Long campaigned in rural, Latin, Catholic south Louisiana, the local boss who had him in charge said at the beginning of the tour: "Huey, you ought to remember one thing in your speech today. You're from north Louisiana, but now you're in south Louisiana. And we got a lot of Catholic voters down here." "I know," Huey answered. And throughout the day in every small town Long would begin by saying: "When I was a boy, I would get up at six o'clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o'clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and I would take my Baptist grandparents to church."

...that night the local leader said admiringly: "Why, Huey, you've been holding out on us. I didn't know you had any Catholic grandparents." "Don't be a damn fool," replied Long. "We didn't even have a horse."

I imagine Chiles telling stories like this when folks in the Panhandle invited him in for home-cooked supper after a long day on the trail--with his own special touches and details of course.

Nowadays, when politicians do the standard stump, they lie but don't even try to be colorful about it.

At least Huey Long sent you home with a chuckle.

September 16, 2007

Dragonflies Big As Pterodactyls

On the way to Plains, Georgia last week I heard a "Thud" as something bumped into the front windshield of my Volvo.

I looked around, wondering if I had hit something in the road.

A dragonfly flapped by. Then another. Couldn't believe the size.

You notice these sorts of things even more when you're walking the highway and not driving: the buzz of a giant dragonfly, the kick-up of dust from a speeding 18-wheeler, the annoyance of a flock of compulsive gnats.

I've seen some big dragonflies in Florida but none as big as in Plains. The dragonfly hit about the time I passed this curiosity shack near town.

The Pig Roast

Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) recently held a pig roast in rural Virginia. This photo, credited to Raising Kaine, shows the line of 100 or so people waiting to talk to the state's new Democratic U.S. Senate candidate. Apparently Warner injured his leg in a game of basketball.

This was the sort of up-close grip and grin that Governor Chiles excelled at. Except he didn't wait for folks to line up, he made the first move and walked to them.

The chicken dinner and fish fry can be potent weapons in the hands of an old-fashioned populist campaigner. Chiles knew how to squeeze the most free media out of every shindig, the most friendship out of every handshake.

And when he got blisters or leg cramps, he just kept on walkin'.