TALLAHASSEE -- Buddy MacKay has shattered many myths and conceptions surrounding the office of lieutenant governor.
It's tough being a lieutenant governor. You have no constitutional duties other than to succeed the governor if something happens to the state's chief executive.
If nothing happens, you sit in the wings awaiting assignments from the governor. Some lieutenant governors are key advisers. Some are ignored or are shuttled off to obscure agencies. Some publicly bicker with the boss.
But MacKay, a former state legislator and congressman who has twice run for the U.S. Senate and long seriously toyed with the idea of running for governor, has defied all those roles and has emerged as the state's most influential lieutenant governor ever.
A brainy lawyer and a self-styled policy wonk, MacKay has guided mergers and reforms in the state's major environmental agencies, including enforcement of the always politically sensitive growth-management laws.
The 61-year-old Ocala native was in the middle of complex and contentious negotiations over an Everglades preservation package.
When the massive Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services was embroiled in a welfare computer crisis, Gov. Lawton Chiles dispatched MacKay to run the agency until the problem could be contained.
In fact, MacKay is such an integral part of the Chiles' team that the governor rarely refers to his administration, rather he's always talking about "Buddy and I."
It may be the unique personal relationship between Chiles and MacKay, fostered over their lengthy service in Tallahassee and Washington, that has allowed the lieutenant governor to blossom.
MacKay is credited with talking Chiles out of political retirement and into the 1990 governor's race.
There is a tremendous amount of trust and respect between the two men. If they've had any major blowups, none have become public.
"I think he's done an outstanding job," Chiles said. "One of the reasons I enjoy being governor is because I've got a Buddy MacKay who is such a good process guy."
Chiles said he never worries about dispatching MacKay to take care of a problem. He knows he won't be second-guessing any of MacKay's decisions.
"He's going to make good judgments," Chiles said. "He's going to do the right thing. You know that to start with."
MacKay, for his part, doubts he could have accepted the lieutenant governor's job under any other governor but Chiles.
"I don't think I would be a very good lieutenant governor for just anybody," MacKay said. "But I think for a person like Lawton Chiles, who has literally allowed me to be the chief operating officer, the person inside who makes things happen, it's been a very satisfying experience."
A graduate of the University of Florida and its law school, MacKay spent 12 years in the state Legislature before running for the U.S. Senate in 1980. He finished third in the Democratic primary.
In 1982, he revived his political career by winning election to a new congressional seat in Central Florida. Like he had been in Tallahassee, MacKay was quickly recognized as a rising star in Washington by congressional leaders.
MacKay abandoned his congressional seat in 1988, when Chiles retired from the Senate. MacKay beat former state Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter in a bitter primary fight. But he narrowly lost a close general election battle with U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, who had successfully portrayed MacKay as a "liberal."
Echoes of that campaign are running through this year's gubernatorial race, as Republican nominee Jeb Bush is arguing that Chiles and MacKay are "career politicians" promoting a liberal agenda.
MacKay, like Chiles, resents that portrayal. They argue that their lengthy experience has better prepared them to face the crises that always seem to beset Florida.
"I've been with Lawton Chiles when we cut $2.7 billion out of (the budget). I've been with Lawton Chiles through Hurricane Andrew, through the waves of (Cuban and Haitian) immigration in South Florida," MacKay said. "I think we're getting the job done."
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