John Coggin first learned of the political legend of former Florida Governor and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles in the summer of 2004 when he joined the League of Conservation Voters' efforts in Orlando to elect John Kerry as president.
The Maryland resident learned of Chiles’ famous Walk Across Florida and heard about his old boots that are now framed and in the State Capitol.
During that summer and fall of 2004, Coggin knocked on more than 6,000 doors for Kerry during Florida’s storms and heat, and talked to voters. He calls it "hurricane summer" because there were so many big storms crossing Florida.
Long after the tears of the Kerry loss, the Chiles story stuck with Coggin.
“It had such a natural drama to it. And I felt a kinship with Chiles after working so hard in the Florida heat to talk to voters and earning calluses on my feet and soreness in my calves. I wondered always what he felt as he traversed miles of highway alone with his ambition and his boots,” he said.
After college, Coggin discovered there was no book or biography available on Chiles.
“I believed it was an injustice that this politician who so earnestly placed himself in front of and among all voters high and low on the economic ladder, from the top of the state to the bottom, had been ignored by history,” he said.
Coggin contacted the Chiles family in the spring of 2006, wrote up a book proposal, secured their authorization to begin as the official biographer, and moved to Tallahassee for a year to complete research. He logged thousands of miles on his odometer, driving through the Panhandle and, to a lesser extent, other regions of Florida. The research phase, in total, occupied three years as he was determined to build on his Kerry campaign experience and make himself an expert on Florida history.
Another year passed before he was able to interest a publisher. However, a publisher was secured and the official release of the publication is scheduled for Nov. 20, with book signings scheduled throughout the state, as well as Washington D.C., and Connecticut. More are being planned.
The authorized bio — “Walkin’ Lawton” — is the first published work for Coggin, a graduate of Yale.
Coggin says “Walkin’ Lawton” has been a labor of love and a source of intellectual and spiritual inspiration for five years — three years of writing and research followed by two years to secure a publisher and complete editing and publication.
“Chiles walked a thousand miles under the Florida summer sun and forged a life-long bond with the land and the people of his state. His ‘Walk’ campaign became a symbol of his career commitment to the public interest. Chiles deserves a strong legacy,” he said.
As a political liberal and life-long Democratic voter, Coggin was certainly drawn to Chiles' policies: universal health insurance, tobacco control, open government, etc. But the inspiration that started the project and stoked it more than any other factor was Chiles' populism. He was a man Coggin characterizes as “marvelous, and a magical politician.”
“’The Walk’ was what set my compass. There are special lessons learned out in Florida's neighborhoods, knocking on doors, hearing the minds of voters. During the Kerry campaign, I realized that a politically active life was for me. Although I never knew Chiles while he lived, the grassroots adventure of summer 2004 forged a personal bond with his legacy that has sustained years of labor,” he said. “I am proud to have the opportunity to share the unique Chiles spirit with others through this biography.”
Although this is Coggin’s first book to pen, he feels certain there are more great untold stories to discover.
“The Walk” is available online through Amazon.com. A Kindle version is forthcoming, and he welcomes more avenues for book signings.