"The old he-coon walks just before the light of day."
- Chiles, in a debate with Jeb Bush, 1994
Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was the governor
, and is invariably cited as one of the most important figures in the state's history.
He was born in Lakeland, Florida in 1930 and went to college at the University of Florida (w00t), where he received his BA in 1952 and his law degree in 1955. He left law school for a year to serve as an artillery officer in the Korean War, but by the time he graduated from law school, he already had three children.
In 1958, he became a member of the Florida House, running a shoestring campaign on a budget of $1,200. He served there until 1966, when he moved upstairs to the Florida Senate.
Then, in 1970, U.S. senator Spessard Holland announced that he would not seek re-election. Chiles entered the race to replace him. At that point, virtually nobody in Florida knew who Lawton Chiles was, so he embarked on a truly unique political mission: he walked for 1,000 miles in three months, all the way from the Florida panhandle to Key West, and he shook hands at hundreds of towns along the way. The press began coming out in droves to report on the spectacle, and Lawton suddenly became famous. He won the election, and became known as "Walkin' Lawton."
He stayed in the Senate for seventeen years, and was re-elected in 1976 and 1982. In his first re-election campaign, he only accepted contributions of up to ten dollars: for the second, he raised that cap to $100. But Lawton Chiles didn't need money, because his work in Congress was being felt all over Florida, as the state's economy skyrocketed with the help of new infrastructure investments and increasing Medicare subsidies.
In 1986, Chiles became chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. It was a terrible time to have that particular job, because traditional Democrats were vying with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party over the size of the budget and the federal tax rates. He had recently had quadruple bypass surgery, and now he was beginning to suffer from severe depression. He resigned from the Senate just one year later.
Over the next couple of years, he reorganized his life. He began a Prozac regimen to get rid of his depression, and he taught several classes at UF. In 1990, former Senate candidate Buddy MacKay persuaded him to run for governor, and he beat the Republican incumbent, Bob Martinez, while still keeping his $100 contribution cap.
His first term as governor, quite frankly, sucked. There was a recession going on around the country that dealt a huge blow to Florida's tourist industry. Then, Hurricane Andrew struck. By the time South Florida was rebuilt, a huge crime wave hit and claimed the lives of several tourists, making the industry even worse off.
Chiles was only narrowly re-elected in 1994. His opponent was Jeb Bush, George's son and George W.'s brother. Fortunately for Chiles, Bush was from Texas and had a carpetbagger air about him. Still, given Bush's relative inexperience, it's easy to say that Chiles could have easily lost to a better Republican candidate.
Right before the election, Chiles sent a bill through the Florida legislature to make it easier for the state to sue tobacco companies. In 1997, Florida won a settlement of thirteen billion dollars from the industry, which became Chiles' crowning achievement as governor.
In 1998, his term expired. Bush and Mackay ran in the election to succeed him, and Bush won by a comfortable margin. Just three weeks before Bush's inauguration, Chiles had a heart attack while exercising in the Governor's Mansion's gymnasium. He was found dead—dead at the twilight of his political career.