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Chiles, Lawtonfree

(03 April 1930–12 December 1998)
  • Julian M. Pleasants

Chiles, Lawton (03 April 1930–12 December 1998), U.S. Senator and governor of Florida, was born Lawton Mainor Chiles, Jr., in Lakeland, Florida, the son of Lawton Mainor Chiles, a railroad conductor, and Margaret Patterson Chiles, a housewife. A fourth-generation Floridian, Chiles attended Lakeland public schools and graduated from the University of Florida in 1952. While at the university, he was a member of Florida Blue Key, the Hall of Fame, and Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

On 27 January 1951 Chiles married Rhea Grafton; they had four children.

He left law school to serve in the U.S. Army in 1953–1954 as an artillery officer in Korea. Receiving his LL.B. from the University of Florida Law School in 1955, he was admitted to the Florida bar and began practicing in his hometown. Chiles was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1958, served until 1966, and was elected to the Florida Senate (1966–1970). In the state senate he was chairman of the Florida Law Revision Council, which in 1967–1968 overhauled the old 1885 state constitution. Chiles joined with other progressive state legislators, including Reubin Askew and Bob Graham, to fight the “Pork Chop Gang,” a group of twenty or so rural legislators who represented only 17 percent of the voters but controlled the state legislature. Finally, as Chiles later recalled, the “one-man, one-vote” court decisions broke the “strangle-hold of the status quo … where vested interests and the lobbyists just exerted almost total control” (Bass and DeVries, 30 Jan. 1974, p. 3).

In 1970 Chiles ran for the U.S. Senate to replace the long-serving Spessard Holland. Clad in hiking boots and khakis, Chiles walked 1,033 miles from Pensacola to Dade County in ninety-two days. Lacking name recognition and money, he thought the trek through the state would be the best way to connect with voters on a one-to-one basis. In his legendary walk, which earned him the nickname “Walkin' Lawton,” Chiles projected a down-home, populist image. A television report contrasted his rally featuring buckets of fried chicken with his opponent's black-tie, $1,000-a-plate dinner. Voters responded favorably, and Chiles won with 902,438 votes (53.9 percent) to 772,817 (46.1 percent) for Republican Bill Cramer.

In his three terms in the Senate, Chiles became a strong defender of children and families as well as the environment. He advocated the establishment of the Everglades–Big Cypress National Park (1971) and successfully fought the Cross-Florida Barge Canal (1975–1976). He generally favored government programs such as student loans and child care and supported the establishment of the federal departments of Energy (1977) and Education (1979). While he was against busing, he was a moderate on race. In a speech to the Jaycees in Lake Wales, Florida, in 1972, he deplored the costs of racial prejudice and noted that segregation “still exists in the south and in the north”; he urged that the spotlight be taken from busing and the emphasis placed on equal opportunity for a good education (Lynch, 1972, p. 14). He insisted on “government in the sunshine” and was the chief sponsor of a 1976 federal law requiring regulatory agencies to conduct their meetings in public. Key foreign policy positions included his advocacy of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam (1971), cosponsorship of the War Powers Act of 1972, and votes for the Panama Canal treaties, SALT I, and the ABM treaty. Chiles was reelected to the Senate in 1976 with 63.1 percent of the vote over Republican John Grady and in 1982 won 61.7 percent of the vote in defeating Republican Van Poole. In his eighteen-year U.S. Senate career, Chiles served as chairman of the Special Committee on Aging and became the first Floridian to serve as chairman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee. While in the Senate, Chiles also championed a balanced budget, favored reduced government bureaucracy, and was the chief proponent of the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. He was also a member of the Governmental Affairs, Agriculture, and Appropriations committees.

In late 1987, Senator Chiles stunned supporters by announcing that he would not seek a fourth term in the Senate, giving recurring bouts with depression (later treated with Prozac) as one reason for his decision. He was also frustrated with federal government gridlock. In 1990, however, renewed after a hiatus from politics, Chiles captured the Democratic nomination for governor. As was his custom, he limited contributions to $100 per person, but he nonetheless defeated incumbent Republican governor Bob Martinez by 56.5 percent to 43.4 percent. In 1994 Chiles won a second term with a hard-fought victory over Jeb Bush (son of former President George H. W. Bush) by 50.8 to 49.2 percent. Chiles emphasized his “cracker” roots and Bush's inexperience while overcoming allegations that Democrats made misleading telephone calls to frighten elderly voters.

Chiles's two terms as governor emphasized programs for Florida children that expanded the Healthy Kids program, provided increased health coverage, bolstered prenatal and infant care, and protected children from abuse and neglect. Chiles thought that if Florida focused on children, then the state's future would be secure. He helped establish Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership to boost economic development, and orchestrated the passage of a public campaign finance law (1991). He vetoed a school prayer bill (1996) as well as tort reform legislation (1998), while insisting on accountability and standards in public education. Governor Chiles won a signal victory in 1997 when the tobacco industry agreed to reimburse the state $11.3 billion over twenty-five years for smoking-related illnesses. The legislature created the Department of Elderly Affairs (1991), established a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases (1991), and established a tenth state university (1991).

Chiles also had to deal with such problems as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, an economic downturn, an influx of Haitian and Cuban immigrants, murders of tourists and abortion doctors, crowded schools, and wildfires. With twenty-four days left in his second term, on 12 December 1998 he died of an abnormal heart rhythm while exercising in the Mansion gym. In thirty-eight years of political contests, Chiles never lost a race and earned a reputation as an astute politician, a man of integrity, and a homespun centrist who communicated with and cared about the people of his state.


Chiles's senatorial papers (1969–1988; 1,731 cubic feet) are stored in the P. K. Yonge Library at the University of Florida, Gainesville. His gubernatorial papers will be housed at the Bureau of Archives and Records Management, Tallahassee, Fla. The Lawton Chiles Foundation, 116 S. Monroe St., Suite 200, Tallahassee, Fla., continues his work on behalf of children and contains his diary from the 1970 walk. An oral history of interest is by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, 30 January 1974, at the Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina. There is no formal biography, but secondary sources include Hilda Maness Lynch, “Lawton Chiles,” in the Ralph Nader Congress Project's Citizens Look at Congress (1972); Stephen C. Craig, “Politics and Elections,” in Government and Politics in Florida, ed. Robert J. Huckshorn (1991); Jill A. Elish, “Remembering a Real Floridian, Lawton Chiles,” Florida Living Magazine 19, no. 4 (April 1999): 30–34; Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics (1996); Tom Fiedler and Lance de Haven-Smith, Almanac of Florida Politics, 1998, Florida Institute of Government; and United States Senate, A Memorial Service In Honor of Florida's Former Governor and United States Senator: Lawton Chiles (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 Dec. 1998.