Yesterday’s appalling Supreme Court decision regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 could become a major campaign issue in a potential battle between Governor Rick Scott, who based on yesterday’s statement plans to emulate the behavior of other southern governors on this issue and Charlie Crist, whose two decade Civil Rights record is nearly flawless.
Crist was a leading voice in 1998 to provide state compensation for Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts two African-American men accused of murder in a 1963 Port St Joe killing who were pardoned by Governor Askew in 1975 while on death row. The case continued to be divisive in the panhandle which is why many Democrats from the area voted against compensation regularly including in 1998.As a Republican, Crist was able to exercise his conscience on the case as a Republican since the racial divisions and scars politically were almost entirely on the Democratic side. The 1998 session was the first session after incoming Democratic leader Willie Logan was dumped by a coup led by Broward County Democrats. The removal of Logan, who would have been the first African-American Speaker Designee was seen as motivated by race. While Democrats eventually came around to another African-American Les Miller of Tampa as the leader designee, that was not the plan when Logan was dumped. In fact, when Logan was dumped, power appeared to be against consolidated by white Broward County Democrats. Miller’s eventual appointment was about damage control after Speaker Dan Webster, John Thrasher and other Republican legislative leaders began aggressively courting African-American members to become Republicans.
The Pitts and Lee case was an issue in the 2006 Gubernatorial Campaign as Jim Davis, the Democratic nominee had repeatedly opposed compensation for the two African-American men when he was a State Legislator, siding with much of the state’s Democratic establishment of the time. The Pitts and Lee issue had divided African-American and liberal southeast Florida Democrats on one side against Democrats from other parts of the state. Republicans who had little racial baggage in Florida of their own were free agents on this matter, and Crist became a strong advocate for compensation. Davis’ explained and then reversed his longstanding position on the matter and picked an African-American running mate, but he could not prevent substantial leakage of black votes to Crist, the Republican nominee.
Prior to this concerns existed about Crist because of his role in re-instituting chain-gangs in Florida as well has his stonewalling of Harry Singletary’s nomination by Governor Chiles as Head of the Department of Corrections in 1995. Singletary, an African-American was eventually confirmed by the Senate on the last day of session but many Democratic activists at the time felt Crist’s line of questioning in the committee had some degree of racial motivation.
But Crist had made it clear when the nominations came to the floor that his concerns about Singletary had been based on other considerations and the same day defended Doug Jamerson, also African-American against a Republican motivated attack about his competency. Both Singletary and Jamerson were confirmed while the appointment of Jim Towey, a white Catholic was rejected on a party line vote with Crist leading the charge against Chiles nominee. The case against Towey was largely based on his use of religion as a decision making trigger, however it is ironic that years later Towey would become a close ally and adviser to Jeb and George W. Bush. Republicans alleged at the time Towey allowed his religious convictions to determine his view on issues, an irony from a party who at the national level saw religious fundamentalism at its apex in the mid 1990s. However the mid 1990s were a period when the RPOF was clearly to the left of the national GOP, something that would become a focal point of RPOF Chairman Tom Slade’s failed campaign for RNC Chairman in 1997. Slade’s campaign included outreach to African-Americans as a key component of his platform.
In his brief tenure as Commissioner of Education, Crist appointed numerous African-Americans to high level staff positions and reversed some of Tom Gallgher’s partisan appointments.
As Attorney General, Crist reopened the Harry T. Moore murder case that had been shoved under the rug by Florida’s Democratic Party establishment for years and concluded the culpability of the elected officials in Orange County who had aligned with the Klan, and that the four men responsible for Moore’s murder were from Orange County.
Moore had been murdered in Mims and the FBI got involved in the case at an early stage. But the murder investigation was inhibited by local and state officials and the Attorney General’s office which remained in the hands of the Democrats until 2002 refused to reopen the case.
Crist’s advocacy didn’t stop at Moore. He thoroughly investigated other Civil Rights and lynching cases. Crist came from a tradition of Florida Republicans I outlined yesterday:
Florida has a sad racial history. But politicians in both parties had certainly made a strong effort between 1970 and 2009 to make Florida a model for the rest of the nation. However, recent voter purges that disproportionately impact minority voters protected under the Voting Rights Act have been pushed by Florida Republicans, which is disappointing considering that the RPOF, unlike its counterparts in neighboring states, did not overtly use race in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to win disaffected southern Democrats over to its side. The RPOF’s responsible action regarding race in that period also explains why Florida did not realign as quickly as many political observers assumed it would after the tumult of the 1960s. In fact, between 1968 and 1984 the Republicans actually lost state legislative seats while they were winning national elections regularly in the state employing the racially cynical “Southern Strategy” that the RNC, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan perfected.
The vast majority of Florida Republicans aren’t racists. In fact, I believe there are as many (if not more) registered Democratic racists as Republican racists in Florida. However, neighboring southern states paint a different picture and a potential model for Florida Republicans if they choose to take advantage of this court ruling and implement modern versions of poll taxes, black codes and Jim Crow. What has become apparent is that the national Republican Party post-2010 is returning to race baiting much as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. During that period cynical Republican campaigns focused on converting historic Democrats in the southern states to the GOP and scaring suburbanites who aligned with the Democrats on most issues. These strategies were best discussed in a book I have read over and over again, Chain Reaction. Bill Clinton read this book carefully in 1992, and changed the tenor of the debate at the same time as many in the GOP were beginning to recognize the damage this cynical campaign strategy was doing to the GOP’s image among younger voters.
As Governor, Crist pushed voting reform, and making early voting and election day more accessible to African-Americans and other minorities. After leaving the Governor’s Mansion he has strongly spoken out against the efforts to make access to the ballot, a fundamental American right more difficult.
Based on yesterday’s statement from Governor Scott regarding the ruling, he plans to push restrictions to voting laws and perhaps even subtly race bait in next year’s campaign. Scott’s desperation has led him to zig zag all over the place ideologically. Scott who did initially run with African-American female Jennifer Carroll now is taking a course based on yesterday’s statement which could be construed as a desire to make voting more difficult, something that disproportionally impact minorities who tend to vote for Democrats.
Scott has to walk a fine line. Crist’s credentials on Civil Rights are impeccable even though he is far from progressive on other issues. So does that mean Scott begins “hunting where the ducks are” to quote Barry Goldwater’s famous quip after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Perhaps that is the course Scott will choose to follow, repudiating decades of overt Republican efforts in Florida to mitigate race as a political issue.
P.S. I should state while Republicans have overtly tried to downplay race as an issue in campaigns, the 2000 Presidential election was determined by voting irregularities disproportionately related to race. Florida's Republicans had just obtained complete power in 1998 and used the opportunity in 1999 and 2000 to disenfranchise voters. These were the only two years between 1992 and 2010 that Crist was out of office.