Chiles' Journey of 1,000 Miles

How a Political Underdog Was Elected Senator ‘Walkin’ Lawton’ Chiles

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Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

A relative unknown, Lawton Chiles took a hike in 1970 that would propel him to the U.S. Senate.

It was the campaign that nearly wasn’t.

Lawton Chiles had represented Polk County for 22 years in the Florida Legislature and in 1970 wanted to go to Washington as a U.S. senator. But he was barely known outside his central Florida district and the opposition would be formidable. He would be one of four candidates, including former Gov. Farris Bryant, vying for the Democratic nomination — and the others would have access to the kind of campaign money Chiles could only dream about.

The first major challenge was to convince friends and longtime supporters he could win the seat being vacated by his longtime political hero, Spessard Holland. Unable to raise the funds needed to hire a big staff and launch a statewide advertising campaign, he employed a strategy that had served him well in his legislative races, opting to walk across Florida and hope that free press and word-of-mouth would get him the support he needed. From Century, an Escambia County town near the Alabama line, Chiles embarked on a 1,003-mile journey that would earn him the nickname “Walkin’ Lawton” — and a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Chiles died 14 years ago on Dec. 12, just three weeks before his second term as governor ended. At his funeral, former Georgia U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn reflected, 28 years later, on how Chiles spent his first day in Washington, wandering the city in awe. “And that night he sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and wept tears of joy at a Florida cracker being given the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Senate.”

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