Former Gov. Lawton Chiles remembered 20 years later

41st governor of Florida died 23 days before end of his second term

Official portrait of Gov. Lawton Chiles
Official portrait of Gov. Lawton Chiles (State Library and Archives of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Twenty years ago Wednesday, Gov. Lawton Chiles died three weeks short of finishing eight years as Florida's chief executive.

Chiles died in the governor’s mansion after a pacemaker malfunctioned.

A Korean War veteran, Chiles returned to Florida for law school and eventually opened his own private practice in 1955. He was elected to the Florida House in 1958 and the state Senate in 1966. 

Despite 12 years in the Florida Legislature, he was relatively unknown when he ran for an open U.S. Senate seat, so he walked 1,000 miles from Pensacola to Key West for his campaign, earning him the nickname "Walkin' Lawton." After serving three terms, he retired from politics, only to be elected 41st governor of Florida in 1990.

Chiles is perhaps best remembered for his work in public education, protecting children and initiating the first successful major lawsuit against Big Tobacco. His then-legislative director, Jon Moyle, said Chiles was never afraid of a fight.

“When he became governor, he looked at, think it was $400 million a year that was being spent to treat tobacco-related illnesses and he said, 'We’ve got to do something about this,'" Moyle said. "And through a series of conversations with a lot of different people, this idea was hatched about passing legislation that would help.”

Florida continues to receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the settlement with the major tobacco manufacturers.

After his death on Dec. 12, 1998, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay served the remaining 23 days of Chiles' term.

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