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Tributes pour in for Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles


Irregular heartbeat led to death, doctor says

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida (AllPolitics, December 13) -- Mourners braved a cold rain Sunday to leave candles, flowers, notes and cards at the wrought-iron gate in front of the Florida Governor's Mansion in tribute to Gov. Lawton Chiles, the folksy Democrat who died Saturday afternoon.

One woman left a pair of shoes in honor of the man dubbed "Walkin' Lawton" after he made a 1,000-mile trek across the state in 1970 to win a U.S. Senate seat.

Chiles, 68, was found next to his cycling machine in the gymnasium of the Governor's Mansion. Doctors determined that Chiles died from a heart dysrythmia -- an irregular heartbeat -- rather than a heart attack, as first suspected.

Chiles walking across Florida in 1970  

Early Sunday, Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay was sworn in to serve the final three weeks of Chiles' term. On January 5, Jeb Bush, a Republican elected governor in November, will take office.

"He was a fun guy to be around. He was totally committed to trying to help other people -- an extraordinary person (who) never in the time I knew him made any compromises because of fear of consequences," MacKay said.

"He was our hero. We're proud to have shared this man we loved so much with the people of Florida," said Chiles' daughter, Rhea.

Funeral set for Wednesday

On Tuesday, Chiles' body will travel in a motorcade to the state Capitol from Century, the town in the Panhandle where Chiles began his 1970 trek. He will lie in state Tuesday and Wednesday before a funeral service at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee.

Flags were lowered to half-staff at all state office buildings in honor of Chiles, the first Florida governor to die in office since Daniel McCarty in 1953.

A native of Lakeland, Chiles is survived by his wife, Rhea, and four adult children.

Tributes to Chiles pour in

Tributes continued to pour in from political figures around the country.

"Lawton never forgot the thousands of ordinary citizens he met as he walked the highways and backroads of his state whom he served so well," said President Bill Clinton during a trip to Israel. "And they will never forget him."

Vice President Al Gore said Chiles' "unwavering dedication to public service touched and inspired the lives of many."

"We will miss him dearly," Gore said.

Former President Jimmy Carter said, "The nation has lost a statesman, the state of Florida a leader and I, a friend."

The House Judiciary Committee, which approved a fourth article of impeachment against Clinton on Saturday, took a break to observe a moment of silence to honor Chiles.

"Governor Chiles was, I think, in most Floridians' eyes the epitome of a fine and decent man, a throwback to the age when partisanship didn't play the role it plays. ... This man rose above party," said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat.

Another committee member from Florida, Republican Rep. Charles Canady, choked back tears as he spoke of Chiles. "He was a good man, he was a dedicated public servant. ... I had the utmost respect for him."

Never lost election in 40-year career

In his 40 years of political life, which began in 1958 with his election to the Florida House, Chiles had the distinction of never losing an election.

Before becoming governor, Chiles served three terms in the U.S. Senate. He served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee during the Reagan years.

Shortly after quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 1985, Chiles said he became frustrated with toiling in the Senate, where he complained it was too difficult to make things happen. He also was diagnosed with depression during this period and began taking a controversial antidepressant drug, Prozac.

He retired in 1989 but was convinced to make a comeback in the 1990 election, running a successful campaign against incumbent GOP Gov. Bob Martinez -- a race during which his use of Prozac became an issue.

In 1994, he narrowly won re-election over Bush, the son of former President George Bush. Behind with weeks left in the campaign, Chiles reached back to his roots and dubbed himself the "he-coon," a Southern reference to the oldest, wisest raccoon in the pack. It was designed to play off Bush's status as a political novice with a plastic image, and Chiles came from behind to win.

In July 1995, Chiles was hospitalized for a neurological problem diagnosed after he awoke suffering from nausea, slurred speech and a loss of coordination.

Chiles championed health-care reform

Chiles pressed for health-care reform before it made the national agenda. He also emphasized health coverage for the uninsured and led a campaign to create the National Commission for Prevention of Infant Mortality in the late 1980s.

He fought for regional health care alliances in 1994. The alliances allow small businesses to pool their health care dollars and broaden coverage while saving money.

He was unable to achieve the tax reform he had envisioned, but among his achievements was the creation of a Department of Elderly Affairs.

Chiles became wealthy as an original investor in Red Lobster restaurants.

Correspondent Mark Potter contributed to this report.


Sunday, December 13, 1998

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