In June 1970, Lawton Chiles was completing a 1,000-mile walk across Florida. The trek earned Chiles the nickname “Walkin’ Lawton” and helped him win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The next installment in our 50th anniversary series reviews Chiles’ walk as a campaign strategy and its impact on Florida politics.
“Back in 1970, Lawton was a little-known state senator from Lakeland and did not have a huge campaign war chest,” said Ron Sachs, CEO of Sachs Media Group in Tallahassee and former communications director for Lawton Chiles when he was governor.
“It was actually his wife, Rhea Chiles, who came up with the idea of him walking across the state and connecting with people directly.”
The walk commenced March 17, 1970 in the small northern Escambia County town of Century.
“Governor Chiles wore out three pairs of boots by walking a thousand miles from the Florida Panhandle all the way across the Panhandle, down the length of the state to south Florida,” Sachs recounted.
“Media along the way picked up on it and nicknamed him “Walkin’ Lawton.” They didn’t intend for it to be a media gimmick, but it ended up being a huge media benefit for them.”
“Converting shoe leather into success at the polls is Lakeland Senator Lawton Chiles’ bag,” begins a 1970 report on Miami’s Channel 4 News. The clip made available by Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Archives is an example of the kind of media coverage Chiles’ walk generated.
The report makes it clear that Chiles did not have a lot of campaign cash, so he hit the road to boost his image.
Chiles was asked what overriding issue seems to be troubling the people encountered on the walk. He responded, “They were frustrated and fed up with the fact that they don’t think their vote counts, or what they say or think counts anymore.” The senate candidate also noted voters’ complaints that they never see an elected official.
“It really caught the fancy, not just of the press, but of the people. Because, he was talking to people all along the walk, learning what were their problems, concerns, their issues,” said Sachs. “It made him a better candidate and ultimately, made him a better U.S. Senator and, of course, governor for two terms. He listened to the people and connected with them directly, compared to how lots of folks campaign today.”
Sachs believes that format of campaign, created to go directly to the people, was “lifted up” by others who saw the merit and value in it; most notably was former Governor Bob Graham and his famous “Work Days,” which he began while running for the office in 1977.
“I reflected on the success that Lawton had with his walk. I knew I couldn’t do a walk, that would considered copycat,” Graham explained. “But, I could take jobs for a day, similar to the 16 weeks I had at Carroll City High School and try to learn more about the people of Florida, what they were concerned about.”
Although Chiles wasn’t the first or last candidate to campaign for votes by walking and talking to voters, Graham believes that his more personal approach changed – at least for a time - the way in which politics in Florida was practiced.
“My father had run for governor back in 1944. His typical campaign day was with an aide; they would drive into a town, let’s say Marianna, and he would give a speech at the county building,” recalled Graham.
On the campaign trail, his dad, the candidate, would answer a few questions and then drive to the next town.
“That form of politics by “personal presence” and “speechifying” has largely died out in Florida,” Graham declared. “And, it’s been replaced with different means by which the candidate tries to establish a personal relationship with voters, whether it’s walking through their town and talking with people as they walked or directly relating with people such as the ‘work days’ that I did.”
“I call it an eye-ball-to-eye-ball relationship with people,” said former Pensacola mayor and state legislator Jerry Maygarden. “I think that works best in a political environment if you can do that.”
Maygarden recalled the way it was done when he was a kid in the 1950s at his grandfather’s store in Pensacola’s Brownsville community.
“I can remember Bob Sykes standing in my grandfather’s grocery store with a white suit on in the hot of summer in the August time-frame shaking hands with everybody that came in the door, establishing that connection,” Maygarden said. “You used to see a whole lot more of that back in those days.”
According to Maygarden, who served in the Florida House of Representatives when Chiles was governor, this was a time when politicians would seek out and attend local events. Additionally, political rallies were held with the goal of making a connection with voters.
“But, as the media has emerged and it became really possible for a politician to talk to a whole lot more people through celluloid (film) or video or now social media, that has changed dramatically,” he explained.
“You still want to make that connection and you want to carefully couch what you want to say, because you’re really cornered by the cost of time and space. But, that connection is very different from that old connection, where people looked you eyeball-to-eyeball, shook your hand and talked to you on a personal level.”
“Most candidates would rather have a huge treasury/campaign war chest to spend money for signs and spots and so on, and not necessarily to go door to door,” noted Sachs, who served Chiles as his communications director.
While acknowledging statewide campaigns today require tens of millions of dollars, he says there is no substitute for connecting directly with the people.
Money certainly helps. But, in order to generate attention like Chiles’ walk or Graham’s “work days,” Sachs says modern campaign strategies need to be creative and clever. Candidates have to show voters they care, and most importantly, they have to be genuine.
“You know, people can read right through a veneer of someone faking it,” Sachs declared. “You know, you can’t fake walking 1,000 miles across the state. You can’t fake working an 8-hour shift for hundreds of days in jobs that real people work.”
According to Sachs, if voters do detect that a candidate is not genuine or sincere, “No gimmick in the world is going to win for you.”