He-coon brings out the artillery

Published Jan. 8, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

If I told you that we have a governor who drapes himself in animal fur and shoots potatoes at the governor's mansion, you might think I was making it up.

You would be wrong.

Now we're more than accustomed to seeing weird things in Tallahassee, but last Tuesday's show was the topper. It easily beats the night that Gov. Bob Graham appeared in public in his underwear or any of the strange stunts performed by Gov. Claude Kirk.

There was Lawton Chiles, wearing a funny green hat and vest made of raccoon skins, shooting potatoes at the governor's mansion in broad daylight with a homemade bazooka. In some states just wearing fur would get a governor in trouble, but not in the he-coon infested woods of North Florida.

Chiles did not appear to be drunk or under the influence of strange drugs, but some of his supporters said they were awfully glad the election was over or else Jeb Bush might be having the governor declared incompetent.

Chiles was happy. Very happy. In the greatest of moods for his last hurrah.

It was a joyful occasion. Chiles, the state's self proclaimed "he-coon," had been out on the streets of Tallahassee most of the afternoon, eating and drinking all the free stuff that was being dispensed by vendors who came from every corner of the state to share the day. Chiles even paused to sing and dance a bit. He was full of himself and a little he-coon stew cooked up by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

But the potato shooting event was easily the most bizarre highlight of the afternoon. It came right after one supporter blew loudly on a conch shell to get attention.

There was our governor, raccoon tails dripping from his arms and waist, with a four-foot section of camouflage-painted plumbing, a can of hair spray and a potato.

"Several of us were concerned that he would spray the crowd with mashed potatoes," joked communications director Ron Sachs. "It would not have been the best way to culminate a visit to the people's jubilee."

Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who guard the governor urged him to aim at the mansion, figuring it posed the least likely threat to life and limb, since most of the crowd was in the street around the governor. But Chiles aimed toward the mansion parking lot across the street and watched with glee as the potato went sailing over the trees toward busy Monroe Street. His first shot backfired, sending the twist top from the gun propelling into the governor. An aide failed to screw the lid on tight enough.

"The potato didn't come out, but I've got a hole in my stomach," Chiles joked.

Everyone looked to see. There was no blood.

That's when Chiles took matters into his own hands, unwilling to trust his staff with a matter so sensitive as loading a potato gun. He loaded the gun himself, carefully tightening the top. Again, he aimed toward the parking lot and fired.

"Oh, my god! It's going out on the street," Chiles yelled. He was obviously delighted and the crowd roared.

Next, he took aim at the mansion. His FDLE guards grew more pale by the second. The rest of us were standing there stunned. Here was the governor of the state, gleefully shooting at the house taxpayers provide him.

Again, Chiles ignited the hair spray and fired. This time the spud was a dud. The potato sailed through the air and fell like a shot put at the feet of former mansion manager Susie Carr where it immediately became a prized souvenir.

Only Lawton Chiles could do this sort of thing and have anyone ever take him seriously again.

Aside from the potato shooting prank, there was much to like about the governor's second inaugural. It wasn't crowded. Many of the state's movers and shakers were in New Orleans trying to recover from a late-night football game and a weekend of revelry. It was the first time anyone had seen empty seats at an inauguration and there was much less pomp and ceremony than accompanies most swearing ins.

It was open to everyone who wanted to brave a cold January day in North Florida. All of this openness should challenge future governors to find ways to include average citizens who want to join in the celebration when the state gets a new governor.

An inauguration should not be limited to those with enough money to rent a tuxedo and fly to the state capital. That is the wrong message to send in an era when elected officials are trying to find ways to look less elite.

Lets keep the street festival, but we could probably do without another potato gun.

Lucy Morgan is associate editor and Tallahassee bureau chief for the Times.