'The Ole He-Coon': Remembering Lawton Chiles 20 Years Later

Dec 14, 2018

Gov. Lawton Chiles speaks about the reorganization of HRS department in Tallahassee, Florida (1991).
Credit Mark Foley / Florida Memory

Florida’s forty-first governor, Lawton Chiles, died this week twenty years ago. Look back at one of “Walkin’ Lawton’s” most famous moments: the he-coon debate.

It was 1994. Lawton Chiles was Florida’s governor.

His popularity was waning in a more conservative Florida than we know today.

It was shaping up to be a tough year for Democrats nationally.

Gov. Lawton Chiles speaking at the Florida Statewide Conference of Black Elected Officials held at FAMU in Tallahassee (1993).
Credit Florida Memory

Chiles was embroiled in a fierce re-election battle against a sharp, young Republican politico with his eyes on the presidency. It appeared Jeb Bush had it in the bag as the two went into their final debate on November 1.

That is, until Chiles shocked Bush, and the state, with a now-famous adage in his closing statement.

“My mama told me, ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,’ " Chiles began. "But let me tell ya, one other thing about the ole liberal – the ole he-coon walks just before the light of day.” 

Bush stood there, stunned, and so did his communications director, Ron Sachs.

“He [Chiles] had trained on all the tough issues where Jeb was representing positions that weren't really all factual," said Sachs.

"And when he did the ‘he-coon’ thing it was the moment, it was the headline. I threw an elbow into Tom and I said, ‘did he just utter a racial epithet?’ because I had never heard anything like it."

What is a he-coon? If it seems like Chiles was speaking another language he was – in a way. He was not speaking to the Jeb Bushes, he was speaking to old-time, rural Floridians.

Gov. Lawton Chiles waving during his campaign walk for the U.S. Senate in 1970.
Credit Mark Foley / Florida Memory

According to legend, the he-coon is the oldest, craftiest raccoon in the pack. While the younger raccoons go hunting in the middle of the night, the he-coon knows the best time is right before dawn.

Chiles was making a final campaign message: he is the he-coon.

A lifelong Floridian born at the start of the Great Depression, Chiles was raised in Lakeland. He first rose to fame when made the thousand-mile trek from the Keys to Pensacola, earning him the nickname “Walkin’ Lawton.”

Chiles often joked he spoke cracker. He was a relic of a different area.

“And what he did in that room is he got his righteous indignation up,” said Ed Chiles, Lawton's son. “This young guy [Bush] who doesn’t know crap about Florida, and hasn’t been tested, and is coming on, and, and…and that’s what that, I think that’s where the he-coon thing came out of.” 

Chiles made a final appeal to old Southern Democrats: he was still one of them.

He would go on to score a come-from-behind victory.

Chiles died in office at the end of his term in 1998, and is the last Democrat to hold the post.

Every election cycle the he-coon makes an appearance in headlines and political debate; it has become a piece of Florida lore.