In an election season so full of cynicism and so deep in mistrust, Gov. Lawton Chiles finds himself in a peculiar predicament.
In the past four years, Florida's economy has improved, its rate of crime has decreased, its prison system has eliminated a controversial early-release program, its justice system has taken direct aim on juvenile criminals, its taxes have remained among the lowest in the nation. The governor has reformed political campaign spending practices, amid great resistance from lawmakers. He has fought the insurance and medical industries to try to bring meaningful health insurance protections to all Floridians. He has handed back some of the control of local schools to the teachers and parents who should run them. He has turned over some of the control of health and social services to local community boards that best understand the needs. He has helped to reduce the infant mortality rate and make a real difference, with his prevention programs, in the lives of young children in this state.
Yet this fall, Chiles is being cast as a worn-out political insider who has no fresh ideas to lead the state. His accuser: a man who has never held an elective office in his life, who has done little other than trade off his father's name.
That Jeb Bush is even in a position to face Chiles in this election is frankly distressing. Bush has virtually no history of public service, has accomplished little of consequence in private business, and his "fresh" approach is really quite stale. What he has presented to Florida voters is a script designed to appeal to people's fears and stinginess, using the sophisticated nationwide political machinery of his father and more than $5-million in contributions. Bush has bought legitimacy the old-fashioned way _ with big-money politics.
The case for Chiles need not ignore his faults. As governor, he has not communicated well with the Legislature, and he even has offended lawmakers from his own party at times. His instinct on environmental issues has not always been good, and his merged environmental superagency has yet to prove a success. But what Floridians have seen in Chiles as governor is the same reform-minded spirit that was captured by his near-legendary march to the U.S. Senate in 1970, when Walkin' Lawton rocked the political establishment by winning a statewide campaign on a low-budget, people approach in which he limited contributions to $10 each.
The politically motivated caricature that Jeb Bush has tried to draw of Chiles is simply a fiction.
Soft on crime? The early-release prison program that Bush criticizes was initiated by former Gov. Bob Martinez; Chiles, on the other hand, has built prisons, reformed sentencing policy, doubled the percentage of time each inmate serves and will eliminate early-release altogether by next year.
Tax and spend? In state taxes as a percentage of income, Florida ranks dead last _ 50th _ in the nation. In general government expenditures per capita, Florida ranks 49th.
More government? Chiles has caused more bureaucratic reform than any governor in the past three decades. He has merged agencies, eliminated two agencies previously under control of the Cabinet, and has taken on government employee unions in his attempt to make workers more accountable. He also has restored more control to local communities, through community social service boards and school councils.
Bush, on the other hand, has put together a platform that is as extreme as it is disingenuous. He wants to give tax money to parents of private-school students, which would harm public schools. He wants to build enough prisons to house 50,000 more inmates, at an annual cost of about $1-billion. He says he is going to abandon the federal government's Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program, costing Florida potentially $530-million a year in federal aid. Then, in the same breath, Bush says he will never, ever raise taxes. He even supported a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for any tax raised anywhere in Florida.
Is that a credible plan?
In the real world of governance and problem-solving, experience does matter. Chiles and his lieutenant governor, Buddy MacKay, both represent a long history of moderate, thoughtful and compassionate public service. Bush, by comparison, has chosen a running mate, Tom Feeney from Orlando, whose short tenure in the state House has been inconsequential and who has openly boasted of his far-right agenda; yet, Feeney says: "Jeb Bush has chosen me because we think alike."
In this campaign for Florida governor, the choice is not between old and new or insider and outsider. It is between a man who has spent his life making a difference for Floridians, and one who has never really tried. Chiles himself has captured the distinction well: For the past 18 months, voters have heard Jeb Bush talk the talk. For more than three decades, they have seen Lawton Chiles walk the walk.
We strongly recommend Chiles to the voters of this state.