Governor Lawton Chiles
A Champion for Children and Families

Governor Lawton Chiles dedicated nearly 40 years of public service to standing up for Florida’s children and families. A fourth generation Floridian, Chiles was a strong champion for our youngest citizens and a national leader on children’s issues. As Governor, he dedicated his service to “building a constituency for children” that promotes the well-being of Florida’s children and families.

A U.S. Senator from 1970-1989, Chiles fought for Medicaid reform initiatives such as the Women Infants and Children (WIC) food program and increased funding for prenatal care and childhood immunizations. Chiles also served as chair of the landmark “National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality” which was established by Congress to provide policy recommendations for reducing the United States’ high infant mortality rate. Through public hearings held across the nation, Chiles helped focus the nation’s attention on the importance of early, quality prenatal care.

When Chiles was elected Governor in 1990, he put his national policy experience into practice and established Florida’s Healthy Start program to ensure that Florida’s moms and babies get the prenatal and infant care they need. Since the program’s inception in 1992, Florida’s infant mortality rate has dropped dramatically — falling almost 20 percent in the program’s first six years.

Even as Governor Chiles prepared to leave office in January 1999, his dedication to infant and maternal health continued. In 1997, The Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies was established in Florida to continue research and improve services nationally.

Leading the Way in Infant and Maternal Health

In February 1995, at the direction of Governor Chiles, the state of Florida filed suit against the tobacco industry. The state’s lawsuit had three key goals: to recover the billions of dollars Florida has spent treating Medicaid patients suffering from smoking-related illnesses; to protect children from tobacco’s callous marketing; and to force the tobacco industry to tell the truth about their deadly product.

Governor Chiles said this lawsuit was “the best fight of my life” because while the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars to hire lobbyists and “experts” to defeat him, Chiles had the truth and the people on his side. Chiles battled Big Tobacco for two years in the state Legislature, in the courthouse and in the court of public opinion. In the end, Chiles prevailed.

Fighting Back Against Big Tobacco

Governor Chiles was a strong and compelling voice at the state and national level to provide more and better health care for children. As he worked to increase existing state health insurance programs for children, Chiles was pushing national leaders to increase federal dollars for children’s health. When Congress passed new legislation providing federal dollars for children’s health care, Florida was again on the leading edge. Governor Chiles combined new federal dollars with money from the state’s historic victory over Big Tobacco to provide insurance coverage for an additional 256,000 Florida children — or 10,000 classrooms full of kids. KidCare, Florida’s state child health insurance program was a national model.

Another important health focus for Governor Chiles was increasing immunization rates for children in their youngest years. Under his leadership, the state’s immunization rate was at an all-time high of 83 percent for two years olds. Governor Chiles also worked to increase funding and services for programs to help special needs children, including mental health programs and programs for the developmentally disabled and those with substance abuse problems.

Pushing for Health Care for Florida Children

Raising Standards for Education

On August 25, 1997, the tobacco industry admitted defeat and agreed to pay the state of Florida $11.3 billion over the next 25 years to settle the state’s case. Equally important to the principled Chiles, though, was the industry’s agreement to remove billboards and transit advertisements from the state arid to fund a $2OO million anti-smoking campaign targeting youth. Florida’s anti-tobacco campaign, appropriately dubbed “Truth”, is an aggressive advertising and marketing effort aimed at, and designed by, Florida teens.

Governor Chiles has long believed that the key to Florida’s economic success depends upon the quality of our education system. With this in mind, Governor Chiles tackled many of the problems facing education. Chiles pushed for increased accountability, business and community involvement in setting goals and standards for public schools, and requiring more of students and teachers. At the same time, he pushed for increased funding for school construction, textbooks and technology.

In 1996, Governor Chiles appointed the Governor’s Commission on Education to take a comprehensive look at Florida’s education system. The panel recommended the state take immediate action to reduce Florida’s overcrowded classrooms. When the Legislature ignored their recommendation, Governor Chiles took the case to Florida parents and mobilized an army of citizens who stood with him to demand change. When he called a special session in 1997 to address school overcrowding, the Legislature reluctantly agreed to provide an additional $2.7 billion to pay for new classroom space. Next, the commission addressed the need for quality pre-school and other readiness programs. In 1998, Chiles secured an additional $76 million for child care for working families and incentives to increase the quality of Florida’s child care centers.

Governor Chiles, who was the parent of an adoptive daughter, Rhea Chiles, brought attention to the needs of the state’s foster children — the 1,700 children awaiting permanent, loving homes. Florida tried many new and innovative approaches to increase awareness of these children, including using the Internet to reach prospective parents and funding scholarships for foster children who are adopted. In 1998, Governor Chiles and daughter Rhea launched an adoption advertising and public relations campaign, themed “Get a Life” to encourage prospective parents to open their hearts and homes to foster children.

A Recognized Leader for Children and Families
The Governor was honored by many national and state organizations because of his inspiring commitment to children and families. They include:

Promoting Adoption

  • Lifetime Achievement Award — March of Dimes, 1998
  • Mike Synar Award—Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, 1998
  • Safe Motherhood Award – World Health Day, 1998
  • Spirit of Youth Award – Boys Town, 1997
  • Named one of 10 national “Heroes for the American Family”
  • Parenting Magazine, 1997

Personal Background

Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was born in Lakeland, Florida. He attended public schools, graduated from the University of Florida in 1952 and earned a law degree there in 1955. Chiles served in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer, 1953-1954. In 1955, he was admitted to The Florida Bar and began a Lakeland law practice. Chiles served in the Florida House of Representatives, 1958-1966 and in the State Senate, 1966-1970. He was chairman of the Florida Law Revision Commission, 1968-1970. He became known as “Walkin Lawton” in 1970 after walking 1,003 miles across the state as a  candidate for U.S. Senate, where he served for 18 years until 1989. He was elected Governor in 1990.

The Governor and First Lady Rhea Chiles have four adult children:
Tandy Chiles Barrett, Lawton (Bud) Chiles III, Ed Chiles and Rhea Gay Chiles.

©2002 The Lawton Chiles Foundation