Lawton Mainor Chiles, Jr. (April 3 1930 December 12 1998) was an American politician from the U.S. state of Florida. In a career spanning four decades, Chiles, a Democrat who never lost an election, served in the Florida House of Representatives (1958-1966), the Florida State Senate (1966-1970), the United States Senate (1971-1989), and as the forty-first Governor of Florida from 1991 until his death in office in the last month of his term. He was the first Democratic Governor in state history to have a Republican-controlled legislature.
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 1988 that he would not seek re-election that year. Chiles was succeeded by Republican Connie Mack.
Chiles ran a campaign to "reinvent" the state's government, and defeated Martinez to take office in 1991. During his first term as Governor, Chiles managed to accomplish very little. 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 ran for re-election in 1994 against Jeb Bush. A Republican tide swept the country in that year, and Bush ran ahead of Chiles for much of the campaign. Then, with only a few weeks left before the election, Bush ran a television advertisement which featured the mother of a teenage girl who had been abducted and murdered many years before. The mother stated "Fourteen years ago, my daughter rode off to school on her bicycle. She never came back. Her killer is still on death row, and we're still waiting for justice. We won't get it from Lawton Chiles because he's too liberal on crime." What she was referring to was Chiles not signing the convicted killer's death warrant. Chiles said he didn't sign it because the courts' would automatically issue a stay because the case was still on appeal. And a Bush campaign spokesman was quoted by the Tampa Tribune newspaper in late October of 1994 as saying about Chiles not being able to speed up the convict's execution "I don't think he could have. I think (she) knows that." And under Chiles almost as many murderers were executed as during each of the previous three four-year terms of Florida Governors. Yet Bush continued the run the ad. (Note: as of July 15 2007, the convicted murderer still has not been executed).
Shortly before election day of that year, the third and final debate of the campaign was held at prime-television time when most statewide polls showed that contest as too-close-too-call. As recounted in "Southern Politics in the 1990s" "Moderator Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press raised the death-penalty issue early in the confrontation, asking Bush to justify running the ad. Bush attempted to make his case by implying that Chiles was "liberal on crime" and hadn't yet acted on ten other death warrants. Chiles seemed barely able to contain himself when it was his turn. His voice was filled with a cold fury as he stared at his opponent and said, "All my political life I have supported the death penalty; as governor I have executed eight men. I hold the phone as they walk into the death chamber. I give the last command as they pull the switch." As Bush stood mute, Chiles wagged a finger and chided (him) for airing the ad at all: "You knew it was false. You admitted it was false. You admitted it was a fake," he said. "And I am ashamed that you would use the loss of a mother in an ad like this." (Jeb) who seemed flustered by the force of Chiles' words, never gained the offensive." And towards the end of that debate, Chiles was in full control of the flow. Chiles responded to a reporter's inquiry about his floundering campaign with the line about "the old he-coon walks just before the light of day," an old Southern reference to the oldest and wisest raccoon in a pack. The metaphor, which won over many who understood it, pointed up Bush's status as a political novice who was largely pre-scripted; Chiles came from behind to win a narrow victory in the election, celebrating his victory on election night wearing a coonskin cap on his head. . Bush seemed to learn his lesson from that campaign and ran a much more caring, compassionate, campaign four years later and was elected and re-elected Governor of Florida easily in 2002 and the Republicans comfortably retained control of the governorship in the troubled election year of 2006.
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 the hostile environment, he had some successes, including a successful law suit 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.
Being term-limited and with his second term coming to an end, Chiles supported his Lieutenant Governor, Kenneth H. "Buddy" MacKay, for Governor in 1998 against Jeb Bush. Bush, however, scored an easy victory over MacKay, whose campaign suffered from weak fundraising and a split in the Democratic Party that neither MacKay nor Chiles was able to heal by election day. 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 of office began on January 5 1999.
As Governor Chiles strongly supported the death penalty and presided over 18 executions. He oversaw the first female execution in Florida since 1848. During this time the electric chair was only method of execution allowed in the state. After the botched electrocution of Pedro Medina in 1997 many people urged the Governor and legislature to introduce lethal injection as a "more humane" method. But soon Chiles signed a bill to keep the electric chair and faced strong criticism. Lethal injection was introduced under Bush's administration in 1999 after the botched execution of Allen Lee Davis.
In 1992, Chiles created the Florida Healthy Start program to provide a comprehensive prenatal and infant care program available to all pregnant women and infants across the state; since the program's inception the state's infant mortality rate has dropped 18%. In 1996, Chiles appointed a Governor's Commission on Education to examine the state's school system. One of the significant recommendations that came from that commission eventually led to the highly controversial 2002 state constitutional amendment restricting Florida's school class sizes.
Thus, at one point, Chiles had appointed five of the seven Justices and had jointly appointed the sixth. Chiles' appointments formed the Supreme Court majorities that decided the following major cases:
"I didn't come to stay. I came to make a difference."
"I know this fella from Arkansas," boasted Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles as he introduced Bill Clinton to a Democratic fund-raising reception in this GOP stronghold. "And I can tell you he knows how to speak cracker."
Democratic primary for United States Senator from Florida, 1970
Democratic runoff for United States Senator from Florida, 1970
Democratic primary for Governor of Florida, 1990
Democratic primary for Governor of Florida, 1994