Nearly 11 years have passed since the death of former Gov. Lawton Chiles. He was the last of three Democrats — the others being Reubin Askew and Bob Graham — who dominated this state's politics for 30 years, and who generally stood for the idea that government could make Florida better, and do good for its people.
Of course, this is no longer our prevailing philosophy. The modern question has been how much we can reduce the role of government. In some ways this pullback has been a healthy correction. In other ways, less so.
There's a definite family resemblance in the face of Lawton M. Chiles III, known as "Bud," one of the late governor's four children. Now the son is patterning himself after the father in another way:
The older Chiles made his reputation in 1970 as a long-shot candidate for the U.S. Senate by walking the state. The nickname "Walkin' Lawton" stuck with him the rest of his career.
Almost 30 years later, the son, 56, is in the middle of taking "One Million Steps," or about 600 miles around the state, to publicize Florida's low ranking in a variety of categories concerning children. The rather optimistic title of the effort is "Worst to First" (www.worsttofirst.org).
"This campaign is designed to get the people of Florida to be aware of where we stand," Chiles said the other day.
According to the group, citing a variety of sources, Florida ranks:
• 49th in the nation in health insurance for children, with roughly 1 million who have no coverage at all.
• 43rd in high school graduation rates. (I know this is a contested statistic; I'm just sayin' what they're saying.)
• 48th in preparing high school students for college, based on exam scores.
• Among the states most likely to have juveniles in prison.
• Low in spending on education, while ranking 16th in spending on corrections.
• Worse than average in infant mortality, high in low-birthweight babies, high in the percentage of pregnant women who get no prenatal care at all, high in teen birth rates, and high in single-parent families.
So Bud Chiles walks, sometimes alone, sometimes with company. He reports he's been endangered a few times by a threat his father never faced: texting drivers.
I asked him what he hoped to accomplish, since his stated goal is to finish before the spring session of the Legislature. Does he really expect major action?
"Heck, no!" he laughed. "We're going to get zip out of them." He called the Legislature "a plutocracy of corporate interests." He remains bitter that Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature raided the trust fund established in his father's name with tobacco-settlement money for short-term needs.
Instead, he said his goal is to raise public awareness and to remind Florida that there is a common good and a nobility to advocating that good.
"Who," he asked rhetorically about the current crop of state politicians, "is inspiring? Who is being inspired?"
I asked whether this was about a political campaign. He had thought of running for governor in 2006. More recently, he has been mentioned as a Democratic candidate for chief financial officer. But he again replied, "No, heck no!" when asked whether he would run.
Maybe what he is doing is political, or a stunt, or just out of fashion. But I left with memories of his father and, I admit, a touch of inspiration.