Lawton Chiles was nobody’s fool! 1994 INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: A November 3, 1994 interview with two-time Florida Governor Lawton Chiles. (A few days after this was published in Creative Loafing/Tampa, Chiles defeated Jeb Bush to win his second term in office. Read Bob Andelman’s companion interview with Bush here.)

Lawton Chiles, Governor Florida, official portrait, Mr. Media Interviews
United States Senator and two-time Florida Governor Lawton Chiles

Welcoming Lawton Chiles, the incumbent Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, to a roomful of supporters at the Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach, Don Crane admonished the party faithful to get the word out.

“There’s going to be a heap of money on the other side,” Crane said. “There better be a heap of votes on this side!”

The “other side” as Crane put it, referred to Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. Quite naturally, Bush was considered a pariah among the grand ballroom’s partisans, where it seemed every other person sported a button that read, “I didn’t vote for his Daddy, either.”

When Chiles stepped forward to speak, he was greeted warmly. But the organizer of the event failed miserably to put the governor in a good light — or any light at all. The podium was in the shadows, making the governor — dressed down in an unassuming gray tweed sport coat, his shoulders hunched up and forward — appear less than omnipotent.

Speaking extemporaneously Chiles eased into his top issues, crime and education, as well as his need for more moral and financial support (no more than $100 per person, please) to counter the Republicans’ $6-million-dollar (and counting) man.

“I think this is going to be one of the clearest choices that the people in Florida have had for a long time,” Chiles said.

He warmed the audience with Cracker charm, guffawing as he recalled the Florida Women’s Political Caucus luncheon where a host introduced him as “the father of eight.” (He and his wife, Rhea, have four children and 10 grandchildren.)

Unlike Bush, who was born in Midland, Texas, and didn’t move to Florida until 1981, Chiles was born and raised in Lakeland. He earned a bachelor’s and law degree from the University of Florida and also served in the army.

In 1970, Chiles walked more than 1,000 miles across the state in his first campaign for U.S. Senate. He won and “Walkin’ Lawton” has been a Sunshine State institution ever since. He represented Florida in Washington for three consecutive terms — 18 years — before retiring in 1988, pleading job burn-out. Two years later, conceding he was on the anti-depression drug Prozac, a re-energized Chiles defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Bob Martinez and moved to Tallahassee.

As he wrapped up the campaign rally, Chiles had this final message for supporters of Jeb Bush: “I intend to put a whuppin’ on him.”

Why would anybody want to be governor of Florida?
A lot of people ask me that. To me, after being in the Senate 18 years, I can tell you this is the best job I’ve ever had. The Senate got into gridlock; it’s only gotten worse since I left in 1988. Here, in this job, with all of the problems, as the governor, you get a chance to lead. You get a chance to call the shots of how you’re going to go about doing something. I always worried about whether I could be effective, because I had been a legislator. That’s a little different, putting consensuses together. But to me, this is even easier.

Part of it is, I don’t see many things I haven’t seen before. Look at the (Cuban) rafters. Because I had been through Mariel, I knew exactly what was happening once those Coast Guard captains told me not only was Castro allowing them to come, he was promoting it. I knew we were in another Mariel. And I also knew that if we didn’t do something very quickly, it would get away from us. That’s the way it got away from (former President Jimmy) Carter. I said, “We’ve gotta stop this.” Everybody said, “You acted too quickly.” I didn’t worry about that. I knew what was happening.

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Is it easier to come to a decision — or take a stand — as governor than it was as a senator?
It is for me.

This is a second life for me. My mission was never to be governor. It was to be a United States Senator. I thought my political career was over. One of the commitments (Lt. Gov.) Buddy (McKay) and I made to each other is we’re going to try and do what we say we’re runnin’ on. If people like it, fine. If they don’t, they shouldn’t have elected us. (He laughs.).

Do you see any difference in the types of issues you deal with as governor than you did as a senator?
I had abortion when I was a state legislator. I think the difference is, in Washington, you’ve gotta get so many people to agree. Now, with partisanship, having to get re-elected, the lack of leadership — when I was a senator, I had been under some presidents who really would not lead. (They) reacted, or did other things. The legislature cannot lead. If you study it, it was not designed to lead. It was designed to respond off leadership from the Exec. It’s a check, and it works well if you have a good legislator and good leadership.

I made up mind they were going to have someone who would lead. They would have to decide whether they were going to go along. (He laughs.) But they sure were not going to have a vacuum.

Let me ask you about a couple particular issues. How would you describe your stand on abortion?
I wish we didn’t have any abortions. And I, for a long time, tried to think of some legislative solution. And the longer I tried to do that, the more I think I came back to a place that — if you told me I could write the law on abortion, and that that would be the law, I still would have to say we’d do better to let women make that decision. That’s where I am on it.
We’ve taken actions that promote adoption, have tried to prevent teen pregnancy, and have tried to give women crisis counseling. And help them in their lives so they don’t get put in the position of having to make that terrible choice.

It sounds like you’ve tried to find some middle ground in all this.
I believe that one of the ways to keep there from being a world of abortions is to teach young people so they can understand about their bodies. Adoption is a good, viable option.

What about gay rights in Florida? Hillsborough County has tried to legislate the issue . . .
I think it is a county issue. I don’t think the state should prohibit counties from dealing with that issue.

Personally, do you think homosexuals should have . . .
I think everybody is entitled, you know, to be able to work, to have a home.

Do you think public schools have gotten better under your leadership?
I know they have. People are beginning to see some of those changes. I’m convinced that if you allow parents and teachers to really be involved and you empower them so they can make decisions — our drop-out rate has decreased about one-third.

Mr. Bush has talked about vouchers as a means of making schools more local, keeping kids in schools. He sees himself as the “education” candidate. You don’t seem to see him that way.
(He laughs.) I’m a creature and product of the public schools. I don’t think Mr. Bush understands what public schools are about. And that may be he just hasn’t had my experience.

If what you know is the private school system, the parochial school system, vouchers may seem to make a lot of sense. My kids have been in a private school system — when I moved to Washington. But I always felt like, if I wanted them to go there, I ought to pay their way, you know? The taxpayer was to pay for the public school system.

The other thing is, if you take the best and brightest out of the public school system, you leave the public school system without a core of support. You leave the kids who need the most help there. Those other kids who leave the public school system do not have the experience of being in school with people who are in different economic groups than they are. I think that would be very bad for our country.

LAWTON CHILES excerpt: “I believe people have always helped us more and been turned on more in the grassroots campaigns because they can feel like they were our largest contribution. In this same feeling of disaffection we were talking about, most people say, “Hell, why should I vote? My vote doesn’t count; I don’t give big money so I’m not going to have any voice.” I think the difference tonight was, those people knew they were my max. They were as large a giver as I have. So I believe they have a different feeling toward me. And I think people do resent somebody trying to buy the seat.”

Do you think the notion of vouchers is racially motivated?
No. I would not say it’s racially motivated. It might be with certain people, but I don’t think there’s any great conspiracy here. I think, generally speaking, the people who really espouse that are people who don’t understand what public education is all about. I think they’re people who don’t have any experience in it.

Florida’s gotten an ugly international reputation the last couple years, brought on by the attacks on abortion doctors in the Panhandle and attacks on foreign tourists from Miami to Tallahassee. What’s wrong with Florida? What’s wrong with Floridians? Why are these things happening here?
The attacks on tourists? Well, we have 40-million tourists who come to the state each year. We have 14-million people that live here. Crimes on tourists have declined in the last three years. But with 40-million people and a crime rate that’s higher than we want it to be, there’s got to be some tourists who fall prey to some crimes.

I had a hard time getting support for fighting crime until tourists got attacked. I called a special session before the tourists got attacked. The legislature would not vote the 25-cent cigarette tax, kinda waffled the whole special session. Now everybody says, “Why aren’t you doing something?”

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I’ll use a Jimmy Carter term: Do you think there’s a “malaise” in Florida that’s behind these crimes?
No. I don’t think it’s a malaise. And I don’t think it’s any different in Florida than it is in the (rest of the) country. I think there’s a great disenchantment. People are very frustrated. They don’t feel good about their lives and they want something to change today. Part of it is because we listened to the pied-pipers before, that all you gotta do is do this and all you gotta do is do that.

Florida didn’t (just discover) crime. That’s been happening over a period of time. If you look at the underclass and the growth of the underclass, it matches the pattern, the growth of crime. We wanted to talk tough about it; we wouldn’t put the money in to back up what we talked about, nor would we do anything on the prevention end and it’s gotten worse! Right now, you can play to that, and I think that’s what a lot of candidates do. You can play to the bad feelings that are out there or you can try to do something about it. And I think what Buddy and I are about is trying to do something about it.

Do you remember your first reaction to the British tourist being shot at a rest stop outside of Tallahassee, how you felt about it?
Yeah! Sick about it.

Is it the kind of thing that happens and you almost feel it erases all the good you’ve done?
I knew that on top of what we had in Miami (where a German tourist was shot while driving on an expressway) that it would just spotlight us again. There is this media feast that happens. Yeah — that’s frustrating.

And when the abortion doctor was shot in the Panhandle — do you ever throw up your hands and say, “I’m only one man! I can’t do anything about this!”?
Well, no. Y’know, I like this job. I like every day when I get up and try to deal with this job. Obviously, some things you don’t want to happen and all, but I don’t give up. Those frustrations last a short period of time and then you figure out, “What’s the best we can do with this?”

On the subject of crime, is building prisons more than just a gesture? Does it really do anything to stop the old lady down the street from being mugged?
No, it’s not a gesture. You have to have, I think, credibility. People serving a third of their sentence is not credibility. When you talk about jailhouse lawyers — criminals understand consequences better than the trial lawyers. And it is clear you have 7 or 8 percent of the repeat offenders who create the vast majority of the crimes. I think you have to try and lock those people up and keep them a long time.

Now, what we were doing before — we had all of these minimum-mandatory sentences that were passed, mostly on drugs. And we passed them because that appeared to be the thing that showed you were tough on crime. But then we did not fund the jails. Then we had this 32 percent, the revolving cycle, and, literally, we were locking up the wrong people and keeping them for the wrong amount of time. And we were turning loose people that went right back out and hurt somebody.

We’ve tried to change the sentencing structure on these minimum/mandatories so we can level harder sentences on violent people, trying to use community control and home arrest and drug treatment for some of the first-time and non-violent offenders. To me, that makes a lot of sense.

Now all of that is working at the back end. What I try to say is if you just work at the back end, you will never solve the problem. You work at the back end because that’s where your failures are. But you also work at the front end, and the middle, to prevent and to intervene. If you don’t do that, you can spend any amount of money you want on the back end because you’re just churning out too many repeaters and failures.

LAWTON CHILES excerpt: “To me, after being in the U.S. Senate for 18 years, I can tell you that being Governor Florida is the best job I’ve ever had. The Senate got into gridlock; it’s only gotten worse since I left in 1988. Here, in this job, with all of the problems, as the governor, you get a chance to lead. You get a chance to call the shots of how you’re going to go about doing something. I always worried about whether I could be effective, because I had been a legislator. That’s a little different, putting consensuses together. But to me, this is even easier.”

As an entry point for drugs into the United States, should Florida be tougher on drugs?
I’d say, if anything, we’re already tougher than a lot of the country.

Should we get tougher than we are?
I don’t think it will help.

In 18 years in the Senate, I helped amend the law that allowed the military to involve itself. I got money for Customs, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, all of that thinking we could interdict and enforce the law, finally realizing that, at best, all we ever did was interdict about 10 percent. And the price didn’t go down on the basis of our interdiction. That’s the best teller — the market. We really were not working on the demand side. Now, I don’t not want to have enforcement, but if you don’t work on the demand side, there are too many ways of piercing our border, especially when you can use mules like they do. It’s just a cost of doing business (for drug dealers) to lose shipments, to lose people.

We tried stricter penalties. It didn’t work and we don’t want to spend the money. So I think you’ve gotta go much more to treatment. Today, we’re not treating 50 percent of the people that would like to be treated.

Is there any circumstances under which you would support legalized . . .

. . . Marijuana?
No. Because I don’t know of any way that can be a solution. Marijuana is an entry drug, a gateway drug. If you legalize it, then literally you sort of put your stamp of approval on it. I just don’t think that’s right.

Now that’s not to say you shouldn’t slack up and decriminalize some of the possession and use of a small amount. But that’s different than legalizing.

Let me ask you about casinos . . .
I’m against casinos.

Why so adamant?
I just think it would hurt Florida very much. Given the fact that we do have this crime that we’re trying to get on top of, given the fact that we’re trying to get our tourism back up — goodness knows, to set up 46 casinos where you know some more tourists are going to get hit, leaving or coming — plus, who runs casinos? Bad people run casinos. And they bring in bad people. Florida does not need that. Mississippi might. Florida doesn’t.

We’ve got cruise ships. If people want to gamble, they can come to Florida and gamble on the cruise ships, (which) have not brought the problems we have seen with casinos.

Would you like to see Florida step back and remove the gambling that’s already legalized — dogs, horses, jai-alai or the lottery?
I don’t think it will happen, but I personally could support that. I didn’t support the lottery — I was against it. (But) I don’t think the people want to repeal it.

Is there anything, as you look back on your first term, that causes you to smack your head and say, “Boy that was dumb. I wish we hadn’t done that”?
Oh, I think we took on too many things too fast. I know, definitely, we under-rated the strength of the lobbies and special interests. I thought we were just dealing with the Legislature. The lobby did not have the strength in Florida when I was there, in the 1960s, like I found when I came back. They could keep me from getting bills even up for hearing. Workers comp — I couldn’t get a hearing on it in Senate committee after I passed the bill in the House. That was because the special interests had paid so much into the coffers, you know, of the campaigns.

So you find out you have to narrow your agenda, you have to fight on fewer fronts.

Is that the lesson Bill Clinton has learned?
Yeah, I see the President getting into some of the same things. You’ve told the people you’re for this and that, you’re gonna do it, boom! You think you can put your programs out there and get ’em done. You can’t.

There are two presidents in this race. Bill Clinton and George Bush. Who do you think adds the most clout to a race?
I think the people of Florida do. I think if Bill Clinton came down and told the people how to vote, they would resent it. George Bush can raise an awful lot of money for Jeb and he gives Jeb an awful lot of name identification. But I welcome him to come to Florida.

What about Bill Clinton?
I am not asking him to come to Florida. And I have never asked the President to come to Florida.

With his popularity as low as it is, would Clinton damage your campaign if he did come down?
There are places where he can be helpful, certainly he can come down here and raise money, too. But sure, there are places he could go that he wouldn’t be helping me.

This year, there are a number of high-profile Democrats facing strong challengers — yourself, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. What happens to the political landscape if a large number of you are defeated?
The country will survive.

You’re asking me questions — let me tell you, I don’t think about those questions that long. And I can’t get my mind around them. I’m thinking about what I will do tomorrow and what I will do to win this race! And what the hell happens to Mario Cuomo and those other people — I worry about it sometimes, but I’m not worrying about it right now.

How important do you think out-of-state political contributions are to the people who vote?
I believe people have always helped us more and been turned on more in the grassroots campaigns because they can feel like they were our largest contribution. In this same feeling of disaffection we were talking about, most people say, “Hell, why should I vote? My vote doesn’t count; I don’t give big money so I’m not going to have any voice.” I think the difference tonight was, those people knew they were my max. They were as large a giver as I have. So I believe they have a different feeling toward me. And I think people do resent somebody trying to buy the seat.

Let’s say you weren’t the governor. Let’s say you were a voter comparing the candidates. Why wouldn’t you vote for Jeb Bush?
Oh, you know, I think I might if I just heard him make a speech, ’cause he says the kinds of things I like to hear. But I know a little more. And that’s what I want the people of Florida to consider.

If Jeb Bush does defeat you, do you have concerns about what that would say about your term and how people viewed it?
I’m going to get to go turkey huntin’. (He laughs.)

I’m not concerned. I love what I’m doing. I loved the opportunity to be governor of Florida. I don’t need anything anymore. I had the big ego trip in the United States Senate and ended up being very miserable about it. And so I’ll give it my best at every shot. Don’t think he’s going to beat me at all.

Democracy learns more through its mistakes than any other way. And I believe in that very strongly. That’s why I think this is good — the choice is so clear. If people want to buy the feel-good, they can buy that. But they will have that for a while.

Y’know, Reagan gave people the feel-good. (He laughs again.)


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