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Chiles is going to bat for kids _ believe it

As a career politician with nothing left to run for, Gov. Lawton Chiles has undertaken a campaign that deserves to be taken more seriously than the others politicians are prone to conduct.

This campaign, unlike the ones we've become accustomed to, has the distinction of having something hinging on its outcome, something other than a job for the lesser of two evils.

Chiles wants history books to remember him as the governor who made a difference for children; and to leave that as his legacy, he has to do something that matters.

Friday, he was in Brevard County in the middle of a 30-day campaign to do just that. He has already visited Tampa and Miami and will be in other cities in coming days. His message this time is something more than the tired, "Let's take care of our children."

Miss Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher, would probably tell me to keep a skeptical eyebrow raised. The day she taught us about synonyms, she put liar, prevaricator in the same little group.

But Chiles' intentions this time deserve to be trusted. He can't run for governor again and his spokeswoman April Herrle assures that 66-year-old Chiles is through running for anything else, so he can't be accused of the lying politicians do to get elected.

Chiles also has consistently made children a priority in his career. As a senator, he spearheaded legislation that led to a number of programs that resulted in routinely better prenatal and postnatal care for mothers and their babies.

As governor of the state that ranks worse than all but two others when it comes to children living in poverty, he must have been embarrassed. He must have been frustrated.

The state's Legislature, made up of politicians who aren't through being politicians yet, is largely driven by the desire to be re-elected. In a state whose constituency is a me generation that reaches from yuppies in their 20s to retirees in their 90s, children are not the ticket to re-election.

Not unless you want to put them in jail and throw away the key.

Not unless you want to cut school lunches or other bleeding heart giveaways.

Not unless you want to get them off our streets and spank them.

The me generation wants to spend its money _ all of it _ now, on itself, not invest it in a future. An elected official who ignores that and starts grabbing pennies from them to spend on programs soon has to find honest employment.

Never mind that it's more expensive to keep a child in jail than in school. Never mind that it requires less taxpayer money to maintain a healthy child than to treat a sick one. Never mind that selfish yuppies and retirees can keep more of their money if we teach parents to discipline children early rather than leave it to the criminal justice system later.

Chiles is finding little legislative support.

Children don't vote. Children don't make big campaign contributions. So the people who depend on votes, and contributions to buy them, can't waste too much time worrying about the welfare (a dirty word anyway) of people who can provide neither.

That's why Chiles is talking to the Honeywells (as he did here last week) and the Rockwells (as he did in Brevard County Friday) and even the Ron Jon's. He wants people who can influence legislators to add children to the list of things they care about.

"He knows right now that when programs start getting cut, children and families are the first to get cut because there's no one siting in that room to say don't cut that. He's trying to create a constituency of children advocates," Herrle said.

His goal, said Herrle, is to have the heads of NASA and big corporations _ in addition to the child advocates who have always been there _ keep pressure on legislators to be more aware of children.

For a politician with nothing left to campaign for, Chiles is now in the campaign of his life. Maybe yours, too.

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