The continued obsession with Charlie Crist has continued among Democrats in recent months growing to a fever pitch. Speculation about Crist’s plans and his presence in the Democratic Party fuels passion on all sides of the debate. But Crist himself will have to make a critical decision. For a man who has seemed to depend on likability and amicable relationships throughout his career with a Republican led Legislature he may very well just go along to get along. With many Democrats desperate for any kind of success on the state level ready to accept Crist with open arms they may not ask the questions that need to be asked of him. But progressives who form the backbone of the Obama coalition in this state must be given sufficient cover by the former Governor himself. Crist’s positions on gun issues and his consistent partisan attacks in the 1990s on Governor Lawton Chiles will need to be addressed if he is to become a Democratic standard bearer.
To doubt Charlie Crist was once a partisan Republican is foolhardy, and would involve a significant re-writing of history. In 1995, as State Senator he held up Governor Lawton Chiles most critical administrative appointments until the final day of session for strictly political reasons. The same year he initiated a Senate investigation of campaign calls made by the Chiles campaign, at great expense to the taxpayers. In the long history of political campaigns, dirty tricks have been conducted over and over again, and Chiles’ calls were not out of the ordinary. In the very same election GOP nominee Jeb Bush accused Governor Chiles of being soft on crime while shamelessly exploiting the family of a murder victim in a TV ad. But it was Chiles that was accused of dirty tricks by Crist in a politically motivated investigation which cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.
In 1996, he helped lead the Republican opposition to Governor Chiles landmark lawsuit against the Tobacco Industry and then a year later, Crist conducted another partisan witch hunt, this time against the attorneys who bravely represented the state in the Tobacco Lawsuit. In a twist of irony, some of those same lawyers have become political allies of the more moderate new version of Crist.
By 1997, Crist was firmly viewed within the halls of the Legislature as a show horse and a partisan.If Crist filed legislation, any legislation it seemed he called a press conference. After being crushed in the 1998 US Senate race by Democrat Bob Graham, Crist was the 2000 Republican nominee for Commissioner of Education. I was heavily involved in that campaign for George Sheldon and during the course of fall election, Crist echoed every right-wing talking point about education, school “choice” and standardized testing (ie. the FCAT) imaginable. He was the perfect partisan candidate for the GOP who was making education “reform” a priority.
Crist’s tenure as Attorney General was a mixed bag. When compared to the rest of the cabinet he looked sane and moderate. But when compared to other Attorney General’s around the nation he looked slow, reactive and excessively political. Republicans have joked about President Obama’s multilateral approach as “leading from behind” but that is literally what Crist did as A.G. Still Crist’s record in that office was not to the satisfaction of many partisan Republicans who craved a conservative activist in that office.
Crist began a transformation from partisan Republican to political pragmatist who felt the pulse of Florida’s electorate while Attorney General. Crist’s advocacy on the environment and insurance reform have been in particular noteworthy for progressives, but his record on reproductive rights, education, and gun control are all very worrying for progressives.
Ultimately Crist will have to be trusted on these issues to be the Democratic nominee for Governor. While many Floridians perceive that gun control is unpopular, electoral politics history contradict that perception. If Crist were to be nominated as a Democrat his long established record on guns and education could create a real problem, costing the Democrats turnout in a midterm election. As we know, midterm elections favor Republicans and that partly explains that the GOP has won 85% of statewide elections in Florida run during the off years this millennium.
Democrats continue to assume Crist will crush Rick Scott in November 2014 if nominated. I am unconvinced by this logic, because as you peel away the emotion and hype and look at cold hard facts, a Democrat who galvanizes the base of progressive voters who do not typically vote in a mid-term election stands a better chance.
Of greater concern to progressives may be whether Crist will actually govern effectively if elected. Given his recent propensity for disloyalty, it is a question certainly worth pondering.