Lawton “Bud” Chiles III is the son of one of one of the most prominent politicians to come out of Florida. His late father Lawton Chiles Jr. was an icon in the Democratic Party. He served in the Florida House of Representatives, the Florida Senate, the U.S. Senate and was twice elected the state’s governor. When he died in office in 1998, he had the distinction of never having lost an election in more than four decades as a politician.
Bud Chiles is running for governor too, hoping to capitalize on his family’s name recognition. But instead of tapping into the goodwill his father built up over the years in his political party, Chiles III filed as an independent. As a result, his decision to run has put his family in an awkward position: whether to back a family member who many feel has a slim chance of winning and will likely siphon votes from Democratic candidate Alex Sink, or to endorse the party Lawton Chiles helped build, after more than a decade of Republican control of the governor’s mansion.
But if the family is conflicted, they aren’t saying so.
“He has the full and unyielding support of his family, including his mother, brother and his sisters,” says campaign spokesman Jim McClellan.
“I would say that we were surprised by his late entry into the race,” says Joseph L. Ruthven, a first cousin, in a brief interview. “When he didn’t run earlier we had assumed he wasn’t going to be running this year. He did call us in late May or early June and said that he was seriously considering running. We are supportive of his efforts and we will vote for him in the general election.”
“He’s blood,” another cousin Greg Ruthven offers. “I think Bud would make an excellent governor.”
The former governor’s widow, Rhea Chiles, has not yet made any significant public appearances on her son’s behalf, but campaign officials say she will soon. Ed Chiles, the candidate’s brother, did not return several phone calls seeking comment. But he did introduce his brother at a July 7 fundraiser held at a restaurant he owns in Anna Maria, Fla., McClellan says. Rhea Chiles also attended.
Another first cousin, Kay Hagan, a Democratic U.S. Senator from North Carolina, offered her support to Alex Sink before Chiles entered the race. “Sen. Kay Hagan attended a fundraiser for Alex Sink in Lakeland, Fla., earlier this year,” Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings says. “And she offered Alex Sink support when they met at another function, as well.”
It is not known if Hagan still endorses Sink, or now supports her cousin. Neither Hagan nor her staff responded to numerous calls seeking comment.
Early on, there were reports that family members and prominent politicians attempted to convince Chiles to drop out. One Democratic official says he had a conversation with a family member who said they had tried to dissuade Chiles from running. Two former elected officials say they called Chiles directly to ask him not to run. All asked not to be named.
Ron Sachs, a media consultant in Tallahassee who worked as communications director for the late governor, met with Chiles before the campaign was launched. “He told me what he was up to. I asked all the hard questions. I gave him my opinion. I was clearly kicking the tires on his campaign,” Sachs says.
Sachs came away unimpressed. “Clearly if anybody does the election math, Bud can’t put together a formula for victory,” he says. “I’ve talked to Bud a couple of times since then, and I’ve encouraged him not to run.”
McClellan says that Chiles’ father was loyal to the Democratic Party, “but he was more loyal to the people of Florida.” The current party system is broken, he says, and the late governor “would be absolutely disgusted at what we have now.”
“What Bud has said repeatedly is that his father ran against the kind of system we have now,” McClellan says.
Party officials are saying they are not worried about Chiles. They expect him to take few votes away from Sink.
“What the various public polls that we’ve seen show is that Bud Chiles is drawing almost as much support from Republicans as Democrats,” says Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. “Come election day, Bud Chiles will be a non-factor in this race.”
Others are not so sure. “He cannot win the title of governor,” Sachs says. “But he can win the title of spoiler.”