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Walk a Florida mile his way

Lawton Chiles, future Florida U.S. senator and governor, knew how little he knew of the 1970 Florida that lay beyond his small and secluded hometown of Lakeland. So for his first U.S. Senate campaign, he walked the length of his home state to understand the diversity of its people and its problems. Traversing swampland, red clay and limestone, he witnessed the cultural gap between Monticello and Miami.

Since Chiles' terms as governor, Florida's chief executives have tended to regard such intellectual growth as a political gimmick.

Jeb Bush, a conservative who learned politics in Miami, understood the importance of crafting a public image that favored growth and maturity. Between his 1994 loss to Gov. Chiles and his 1998 victory over Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, Bush sold himself to voters as a wiser politician. He started a foundation and co-founded a charter school in Miami's Liberty City, a poor black neighborhood. He chose a prochoice woman as his running mate.

Charlie Crist changed political parties in an effort to adapt when his GOP label stalled his career. Crist had made early career headlines grilling Gov. Chiles on ethics rules in the state Senate and campaigned for governor as a principled conservative. As a governor and U.S. Senate candidate, Crist called his newfound liberal populism an "evolution."

Current Gov. Rick Scott, born in Illinois and raised in Missouri, moved to Florida midcareer, in 1997. He ran an insular gubernatorial campaign in 2010, spending more than $70 million of his own money to saturate top media markets with poll-tested TV ads. As a candidate, Scott never met with editorial boards. Although Gov. Scott's approval ratings have fallen to 29 percent, his senior staffers pride themselves on curbing public and press access to government.

The Lawton Chiles legacy, however, provides a political guidebook for governors on how to learn and evolve to better serve Florida — while winning elections.

As a young, ambitious state legislator, Chiles fit the Florida "cracker" mold as many defined it. His ancestors were Florida pioneers. He was a passionate, skilled turkey hunter and bass fisherman. And he could put away chicken perleu like the best of them.

Chiles could have sold this folksy everyman image, unchanged, the rest of his political life.

His 1970 campaign for the U.S. Senate first signaled his desire for true evolution. Outmatched in terms of money and endorsements by his Democratic primary opponents, Lawton Chiles and his wife, Rhea, decided on a novel campaign strategy. The candidate would walk the entire state to canvass voters, starting at the Panhandle town of Century on the Alabama border, slogging through the heartland, and ending at Key Largo.

By the end of the 1,003-mile journey, Chiles had met more than 40,000 people. Nine notebooks contained his social observations. Each day had taught ideas on agricultural policy, the Vietnam War and pollution — transmitted directly from farmers, soldiers and student advocates.

On the road, Chiles witnessed lifestyles and livelihoods far from his own. He learned and grew.

Chiles walked Liberty City. He talked to a 24-year-old man who had quit college after two years working toward a sociology degree. The dropout had been drinking beer all morning; he smiled when Chiles asked him how he was. He wondered aloud to Chiles why "we can't have human rights where people want to help each other rather than just civil rights, where someone was made to do something by the law." He and his neighbors thanked Chiles for the visit.

Chiles walked Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. Locals in bustling coffee shops quizzed him on Fidel Castro and the trade embargo with Cuba. "I hope," Chiles wrote in his diary, "to become an expert on Latin American affairs for two reasons: (1) because I think Florida is the Gateway to there; and (2) because the United States Senate has no real expert on this vital problem."

Soon after Chiles won the U.S. Senate seat, he felt a moral burden. The senator-elect described an encounter the previous Saturday with a fiddle player at a Lake Butler rally. "The man gave me a crumpled $5 bill and said he had been praying for me every night and that I was his only hope," Chiles said. "That is the kind of cross you start worrying about — how to fulfill." He worried that "an awful lot of people see me as something I'm not."

As a U.S. senator, Chiles committed to self-education and self-improvement to become the expert, conscientious statesman he knew he could be. He knew that the Lakeland of his youth, a tiny bastion of phosphate miners, citrus growers and Ku Klux Klan chieftains, had limited his worldview on race, foreign policy and other issues crucial for a national leader.

Chiles' campaigns continued to foster inclusion. For his 1976 re-election campaign, he voluntarily limited campaign contributions to $10 per person. His 1982 campaign raised the cap to $100 per person.

To broaden his understanding of Latin American issues, Chiles hired a tutor to teach him Spanish; a graduate student visited his house at 7 each morning.

One of Sen. Chiles' first hires, a Polk County school teacher named Bob Harris, played a special role in the office. Harris, one of few black staffers on Capitol Hill, started an informal dialogue with the senator on race.

Harris introduced to Sen. Chiles the history of the infamous Rosewood, Fla., massacre. Harris lent his boss the book Roots by Alex Haley. After reading it, Sen. Chiles commented, "I don't understand how I could have missed all of this."

Sen. Chiles called Harris' office one day, upset about a conversation he had just had with a Boy Scout troop leader in Tampa. The troop leader was taking his group, which included one black boy, out to an island that required a ferry ride. The ferry controller, however, denied the troop access.

The troop leader had called Sen. Chiles to ask for his help. The senator replied that there was nothing he could do, and then he called Bob Harris.

"Who in the heck would do this to a kid?" Sen. Chiles asked Harris.

"There's been worse done to kids," said Harris.

"Gosh, Bob, when that happened, all I could see was Roger's face (Bob's son). And I thought: You can't do that to a kid."

Harris replied, "Yeah, you can. This is what I've trying to tell you, there's nothing rational about racism. It doesn't fit a rational discussion."

Harris described the episode as evidence of Sen. Chiles' genuine interest in self-education. "I do not perceive it to be a weakness," Harris said, "to be inquisitive about your sense of where you are, and where you ought to be."

The interregnum between Chiles' retirement from the Senate and his governorship saw further evolution.

As chair of the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, Chiles raised the profile of one of his most impassioned causes. He drew ideas from government theorist David Osborne, the co-author of Reinventing Government. He listened closely to Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright and politician, who spoke eloquently of the transition from Communism to democracy in his country.

Chiles considered the Florida governorship, which he won in 1990 and again in 1994, a better job than the presidency.

He considered his office a marketplace for new ideas, and hired a diverse staff to implement his reforms.

Chiles' sense of humor helped break down cultural barriers in a growing, multicultural state. Perhaps no one testified better to Gov. Chiles' diverse cultural appetite than Florida's chefs. The governor hungered for every treat on the menu: the most savory Cuban sandwiches, the smallest but sweetest barbecue pits, the heartiest cups of frijoles negros and the most delectable sushi plates.

The Chiles agenda enriched the lives of Florida's children by expanding health insurance access, lowering infant mortality rates and reducing teen smoking. Florida's case against Big Tobacco strengthened Chiles' national profile and inspired the successful national "Truth" campaign against youth cigarette use. Chiles was the first national politician to envision early childhood health care as more than just a public health matter. He believed it to be the key to cutting crime, improving education, and ultimately balancing the budget. "First base is our children," he said. "The answer to all of our pressing problems begins with the child."

All the while Chiles maintained his $100 campaign contribution limit.

The Chiles values of innovation, inclusion and self-improvement could inform and improve the Scott administration.

Today, the state of Florida is weak. New home construction is slow. Home values continue to decline. The unemployment rate is almost 11 percent. State solvency is at the mercy of a major hurricane.

More than one out of five Floridians considers moving out of state.

But Gov. Chiles knew something about low public approval ratings, tight budgets and powerful hurricanes.

Gov. Scott need not walk the state to be a successful governor. He simply must be willing to learn from its people.

John Coggin is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. His articles have appeared in Journal of Foreign Relations, Yale Review of Books and Verdad. He recently completed his first book, an authorized biography of Lawton Chiles, entitled Walkin' Lawton. The book is not yet published.

Walk a Florida mile his way 07/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 18, 2011 8:54am]
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