Ron Sachs: Remembering Lawton Chiles
Former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who died 25 years ago this week, will be remembered by staff members, friends and supporters. (Image via the Tallahassee Democrat)

lawton chiles
On the 25th anniversary of his death in office, loving tributes to Chiles’ legacy are being shared.

For many people who work or have worked in “The Process,” Tuesday, Dec. 12 — tomorrow — marks the 25th anniversary of the 1998 tragic death of Gov. Lawton Chiles, at the age of 68, just weeks before the end of his two terms as the last elected Democrat Governor of Florida.

“Walkin’ Lawton” served 18 years as our U.S. Senator after a dedicated stint as a state legislator. When he and Reubin Askew won their 1970 races for U.S. Senator and Governor, many called it the state’s version of “Camelot” for its promise of young leaders starting an exciting and visionary new generation of leadership.

As with many others, serving the people of Florida in the Chiles administration was one of the greatest privileges of my life — and I draw upon its lessons, as do many others, every day.

It emboldened me to start a business in 1996, with Gov. and Mrs. Chiles exhorting me to “do good — and do well.”

A remembrance of Lawton Chiles, one of Florida’s greatest Governors.

Tomorrow (Tuesday), family, friends, and many Chiles’ staff will gather at a special anniversary luncheon at the Governors Club to celebrate Chiles’ life, legacy, and legend. We plan to share tributes and anecdotes — many not publicly known — about Gov. Chiles and First Lady Rhea Chiles, whom he often referred to as his “inner voice” for her loving, positive influence on all his public service and policies (she conceived the 1,000-mile walk across Florida in 1970).

His strength, kindness, intellect, folksy nature, politically smart compass, humanity, and humor will all be shared.

The reflections to be revealed will be a poignant look back at a bygone era in Florida politics when Democrats and Republicans generally and often disagreed as policy opponents but not as enemies — and without the rancor, division, and derision that too often dominate our politics today. It should be an inspiration to all to find a way to return to a healthy ability to disagree on issues and policy without demonizing those who disagree with your point of view — and without dismantling institutions as a cynical way to win political points.

Among those attending: oldest son Lawton “Bud” Chiles III and his wife, Kitty; Harry and Mary Chiles; former Chiles EOG Chiefs of Staff, Tom Herndon and Linda Shelley; former AHCA Secretary Doug (and Rose) Cook; media stars Bill Cotterell, Mary Ellen Klas, John Kennedy, Gary Fineout, and Brendan Farrington; former state Supreme Court Justice Major Harding and Jane; legendary attorney and Chiles’ friend Duby Ausley; former State Rep. Loranne Ausley; and others including Joy Moyle, Jr., Robert Coker, Todd Wilder, Cindy O’Connell, Mimi Graham, Edie Ousley, Mark Schlakman; and former Democrat-turned-Republican political wizard “Mac” Stipanovich, whom Chiles delighted in intentionally calling “Max” when he was playfully taunting.

The Governor, who underwent multiple bypass surgeries during his Senate career, suffered a fatal heart attack while exercising at the Governor’s Mansion. Though his partner in serving, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, lost the 1998 gubernatorial race to Jeb Bush, Chiles’ unfortunate passing propelled MacKay into the role of Governor for the last three weeks-plus of the Chiles era.

As always, he served with dignity and distinction.

MacKay is also widely credited with being Florida’s best Lt. Governor ever — and there’s not even a close second — being burdened with the heavy responsibility and vital ‘portfolio’ that included leading the rebuilding of South Florida after 1992’s devastating Hurricane Andrew, taking charge of the fiscal crisis enveloping the City of Miami; reorganization of Florida’s always-beleaguered Department of Children and Families; and multiple other everyday politically astute thought leadership roles and hard work on policy direction and serving the people.

Lawton Chiles has been called Florida’s best-ever “Children’s Governor” for his heavy emphasis on prenatal care, birth-to-five child care policies, and the long runway of other children/family-friendly issues. Long before the “Obamacare” Affordable Care Act, the Chiles Administration developed a statewide plan for CHPAs — Community Health Purchasing Alliances that made health care access more affordable for millions. He also was the “Master of Disaster” — with others, like Jeb Bush, also owning that crown — for his deft handling of hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and other disasters.

Indeed, one of Chiles’ brightest legacies was his frontal assault on America’s tobacco industry — which had never surrendered or lost even a dollar to any legal challenge of its dangerous and deadly impacts on Americans’ health. When Chiles sued the industry for its untold billions of costs to Florida taxpayers, he crushed them in the court of public opinion before a jury ever had to be impaneled and won a multibillion-dollar settlement. That included guarantees the industry would stop its shallow and cynical marketing to children as their dark hook to another generation of addicted smokers.

“This is the straw that breaks Joe Camel’s back and sends the ‘Marlboro Man’ off into the sunset, forever,” Chiles decried at a news conference to announce and celebrate the historic settlement. To double down on the victory, Chiles and First Lady Rhea entrusted the conception, creation and conduct of a “Truth” anti-tobacco statewide campaign for Florida teenagers.

When Chiles left the U.S. Senate after three terms in 1988 — including being Chair of the Senate Budget Committee — he was dismayed by the negative impact of partisan gridlock on the ability to get good things done. It was MacKay who urged him back into politics to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in the epic 1990 race. Chiles also made history by openly talking about suffering from depression in a candid way that helped destigmatize mental health problems suffered by millions of Americans.

At his second inaugural in January 1995, Chiles had famous national country music star Billy Dean, a resident of nearby Quincy, perform his original tune that was so much an anthem for the Chiles era and the need for us all to make the best use of the time given to us — to ‘do good.’

From Dean’s “Only Here for a Little While

“ … Gonna hold who needs holdin’

Mend what needs mendin’

Walk what needs walkin’

Though it means an extra mile

Pray what needs prayin’

Say what needs sayin’

Cause we’re only here for a little while … ”

The Chiles era and spirit live on in the leadership that his family, friends, and staff have continued in his style — with the hope that it is an approach to policy, politics, and people that will become mainstream in Florida again.


Ron Sachs is the founder and Chair of Sachs Media Group.

Guest Author


  • Ocean Joe

    December 11, 2023 at 6:51 am

    Florida was changing politically, as Chiles barely won a second term over Jeb. The author leaves out Chile’s greatest legacy: continuing protection of the environment as did Askew, Graham, and Martinez (R), before him.
    That all ended when the GOP took over. Realtors and the Chamber took over and the manatees are starving.

  • Sonja Fitch

    December 11, 2023 at 6:51 am

    Always Lawton Chiles was the example I looked for in politics! Thank you Lawton Chiles!

  • tom palmer

    December 11, 2023 at 10:17 am

    Good to remember a time when Florida had more public-spirited leaders from both parties.

  • David Rhea

    December 11, 2023 at 4:03 pm

    Having had the distinct honor to serve as speechwriter to Gov. Chiles (and to be trusted and warmly welcomed onto the Chiles team after I’d previously served his Republican predecessor), I grieve today not only the sudden loss of him 25 years ago this week, but also a much more incremental loss: the age of political civility.

    Amid all the daily flurry and bustle of helping with his stewardship of Florida, I believe that each of us who worked alongside Gov. Chiles were keenly aware that we were witnessing a true living legend at work. He left a legacy of honor, grit, statesmanship, and perhaps most of all a deeply reverent and genuine respect for the state to which he dedicated his life, and which he loved so very dearly…along with its people.

    Never will I forget the distinct twinkle in his eyes as he interacted with Floridians throughout the state — listening intently and actually caring about their concerns, whether or not he had ever met them before that very moment. Though the political winds in the Sunshine State already were changing, by most any measure it’s clear he left Floridians’ lives far better off than when he had arrived. And that’s the very most to which any leader can aspire.

  • barbara Miller

    December 11, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    It was the age when public service meant working for the public good and not personal benefit or power. He had personal charisma and a great smile that made on happy to be in his presence.

Comments are closed.


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