Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was born in Lakeland, Florida. He attended public schools, graduated from the University of Florida in 1952 and earned a law degree there in 1955. Chiles served in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer, 1953-1954. In 1955, he was admitted to The Florida Bar and began a Lakeland law practice. Chiles served in the Florida House of Representatives, 1958-1966 and in the State Senate, 1966-1970. He was chairman of the Florida Law Revision Commission, 1968-1970. He became known as “Walkin' Lawton” in 1970 after walking 1,003 miles across the state as a candidate for U.S. Senate, where he served for 18 years until 1989. He was elected Governor in 1990 and again in1994.
The Governor and First Lady Rhea Chiles had four adult children:
Tandy Chiles, Lawton (Bud) Chiles III, Ed Chiles and Rhea Gay Chiles.
Leading the Way in Infant & Maternal Health
Governor Chiles was a strong and compelling voice at the state and national level to provide more and better health care for children. As he worked to increase existing state health insurance programs for children, Chiles was pushing national leaders to increase federal dollars for children’s health. When Congress passed new legislation providing federal dollars for children’s health care, Florida was again on the leading edge. Governor Chiles combined new federal dollars with money from the state’s historic victory over Big Tobacco to provide insurance coverage for an additional 256,000 Florida children — or 10,000 classrooms full of kids. KidCare, Florida’s state child health insurance program was a national model.
Another important health focus for Governor Chiles was increasing immunization rates for children in their youngest years. Under his leadership, the state’s immunization rate was at an all-time high of 83 percent for two years olds. Governor Chiles also worked to increase funding and services for programs to help special needs children, including mental health programs and programs for the developmentally disabled and those with substance abuse problems.
Fighting Back Against Big Tobacco
In February 1995, at the direction of Governor Chiles, the state of Florida filed suit against the tobacco industry. The state’s lawsuit had three key goals: to recover the billions of dollars Florida has spent treating Medicaid patients suffering from smoking-related illnesses; to protect children from tobacco’s callous marketing and to force the tobacco industry to tell the truth about their deadly product.
Governor Chiles said this lawsuit was “the best fight of my life” because while the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars to hire lobbyists and “experts” to defeat him, Chiles had the truth and the people on his side. Chiles battled Big Tobacco for two years in the state Legislature, in the courthouse and in the court of public opinion. In the end, Chiles prevailed.
On August 25, 1997, the tobacco industry admitted defeat and agreed to pay the state of Florida $11.3 billion over the next 25 years to settle the state’s case. Equally important to the principled Chiles, though, was the industry’s agreement to remove billboards and transit advertisements from the state aid to fund a $2OO million anti-smoking campaign targeting youth. Florida’s anti-tobacco campaign, appropriately dubbed “Truth”, is an aggressive advertising and marketing effort aimed at, and designed by, Florida teens.
"With today's agreement, we have pounded another nail in the tobacco industry's coffin."
Raising Standards for Education
Governor Chiles had long believed that the key to Florida’s economic success depends upon the quality of our education system. With this in mind, Governor Chiles tackled many of the problems facing education. Chiles pushed for increased accountability, business and community involvement in setting goals and standards for public schools and requiring more of students and teachers. At the same time, he pushed for increased funding for school construction, textbooks, and technology.
In 1996, Governor Chiles appointed the Governor’s Commission on Education to take a comprehensive look at Florida’s education system. The panel recommended the state take immediate action to reduce Florida’s overcrowded classrooms. When the Legislature ignored their recommendation, Governor Chiles took the case to Florida parents and mobilized an army of citizens who stood with him to demand change. When he called a special session in 1997 to address school overcrowding, the Legislature reluctantly agreed to provide an additional $2.7 billion to pay for new classroom space. Next, the commission addressed the need for quality pre-school and other readiness programs. In 1998, Chiles secured an additional $76 million for child care for working families and incentives to increase the quality of Florida’s child care centers.
Photo: April Hurle collection.
Governor Chiles, who was the parent of an adopted daughter, Rhea Chiles, brought attention to the needs of the state’s foster children — the 1,700 children awaiting permanent, loving homes. Florida tried many new and innovative approaches to increase awareness of these children, including using the Internet to reach prospective parents and funding scholarships for foster children who are adopted. In 1998, Governor Chiles and daughter Rhea launched an adoption advertising and public relations campaign, themed “Get a Life” to encourage prospective parents to open their hearts and homes to foster children.
A Recognized Leader for Children and Families
The Governor was honored by many national and state organizations because of his inspiring commitment to children and families. They include:
Lifetime Achievement Award — March of Dimes, 1998
Mike Synar Award—Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, 1998
Safe Motherhood Award – World Health Day, 1998
Spirit of Youth Award – Boys Town, 1997
Named one of 10 national “Heroes for the American Family”
Parenting Magazine, 1997
“The old he-coon walks just before the light of day”
In 1970, Lawton Chiles made the decision to run for the United States Senate. Although he had previously served in the Florida House of Representatives (1958–1966) and the Florida State Senate (1966–1970), Chiles had a low statewide name recognition level. Additionally, he was not personally wealthy and did not want to spend his days soliciting campaign donations or “dialing for dollars”, as he liked to call it. He had experienced enough of Florida’s political system to know that you quickly became “beholden” to those that gave you large contributions, a position he did not want to be in.
As he and his wife, Rhea, discussed a way to increase his name recognition as well as get news coverage for his candidacy, Rhea came up with the idea of walking the state of Florida. While friends and associates called him “crazy” for even considering the idea, Chiles warmed more and more to it.
Thus, Chiles embarked upon a 1,003-mile, 91-day walk across Florida from Pensacola to Key West. The walk earned him the recognition he sought, as well as the nickname that would follow him throughout his political career– “Walkin’ Lawton”. In this journal, Chiles wrote that sometimes he walked alone, while other times he met ordinary Floridians along the way, totaling close to 40,000 people. In later years, Chiles would recall the walk allowed him to see Florida’s natural beauty, as well as the state’s problems, with fresh eyes. But he was most profoundly affected by his interactions with Florida’s people; he would claim that “the walk” changed him forever. After the walk, Chiles was elected easily.
PHOTO COURTESY STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY
The Senate Years
Chiles was re-elected to the U.S. Senate twice, in 1976 and 1982. Chiles, never flashy, was considered a moderate lawmaker who rarely made waves. He served as the Chairman of the Special Committee on Aging of the 96th Congress (1979–1981), and in the 100th Congress (1987–1989) served as chairman of the influential Senate Budget Committee. While heading the Budget Committee, he played a key role in the 1987 revision of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act.
Chiles underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 1985. After his recovery, he became increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of work in the Senate, complaining that it was too difficult to get anything done. He announced in December 1987 that he would not seek re-election the next year. Chiles was succeeded by Republican Connie Mack.
Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center – 1970 Walk
The Governor Years
Chiles retired from the Senate in 1989 and intended to retire from politics entirely. However, several supporters convinced him to enter the 1990 Florida Governor’s race against Republican incumbent Bob Martinez. During the Democratic Party primary, his opponent Bill Nelson attempted to make an issue of Chiles’ age and health, a strategy that backfired badly in a state with a large retiree population.
Chiles ran a campaign to “reinvent” the state’s government, and defeated Martinez to take office in 1991. Although he developed ambitious health-care and tax reform packages, neither passed in the hostile state legislature. The early years of his term were troubled by a national economic recession that severely damaged Florida’s tourism-based economy, and by Hurricane Andrew, which struck near Homestead in August, 1992. Chiles moved the operational center of the Governor’s office to South Florida after the hurricane and remained there for weeks to oversee the clean-up.
Chiles ran for re-election in 1994 against Jeb Bush whom he narrowly defeated. Chiles’ second term as Governor was notable as the first time in state history that a Democratic Governor had a legislature controlled by the Republican Party. Despite this, he had some successes, including a successful lawsuit he and state Attorney General Bob Butterworth filed against the tobacco industry, which resulted in an $11.3 billion settlement for the state. He also won approval for a $2.7 billion statewide school construction program.
In 1995 Chiles sought treatment for a neurological problem, after he awoke with nausea, slurred speech, and loss of coordination. He recovered fully.
Ineligible to run a third time, Chiles supported the Lieutenant Governor, Kenneth H. “Buddy” MacKay, in the 1998 Florida governor’s race against Jeb Bush. Bush, however, scored an easy victory over MacKay. On December 12 that year, just three weeks before his long-awaited retirement was to begin, Chiles suffered a fatal heart attack while exercising on a cycling machine in the Governor’s mansion gymnasium. Funeral services were held at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, following a funeral procession that traced part of his walk from the 1970 Senate campaign, from the panhandle town of Century to Tallahassee. He was succeeded in office by MacKay, who served until Bush’s term began on January 5, 1999.
Biography by John Dos Passos Coggin
Lawton Chiles was one of the most inspirational and influential politicians to come from Florida. His unique campaign style and passion for improving peoples' lives established a legacy that deserves recognition today. John Dos Passos Coggin conducted more than one hundred interviews with the friends, family, and co-workers of Lawton Chiles to create this definitive biography. Coggins' insightful writing based on extensive research illuminates both the political career and personal life of the fascinating Lawton Chiles. The Florida Historical Society Press is proud to publish this important work.