As we continue our look at former Governor Charlie Crist it is important to note that while a partisan Republican for much of his time in office, he did take on his party on some issues.
The GOP finally gained the Attorney General’s office for the first time post reconstruction in 2002. That year a three way Republican Primary had been won by Charlie Crist, who proved to be anything but a reliable conservative except on issues of women’s reproductive rights and guns, where he adhered to the conservative position as religiously as possible . Many establishment Republicans and Tallahassee insiders backed Locke Burt for the Attorney General’s post feeling that Burt, who was an insurance man, would be sufficiently partisan despite a less than conservative record on some social issues. The other candidate, former Martin County Rep. Tom Warner, served as Bob Butterworth’s Solicitor General and was always considered a moderate. Warner had also staked out a strong position in favor of Everglades Restoration and taxing the sugar companies which angered many corporate donors to the GOP.
As the Republicans solidified their hegemony over the state during the late 1990s, they badly wanted a partisan Attorney General who would implement a doctrinaire conservative interpretation of the law. In many cases conservatives misinterpret the law, manipulate its intent while misrepresenting the debate and discussions behind the passages of these laws. This should not come as a shock considering we are discussing a political party that has actively promoted anti-intellectualism as a part of its appeal to voters. While Crist wasn’t the most intellectual politician he also wasn’t ideological enough.
Once in office, Crist much to the chagrin of many Republicans took on the oil companies, some of Jeb and George W. Bush’s biggest allies. Ironically enough progressive groups has urged Bob Butterworth, Crist’s predecessor as Attorney General to take on these issues but he refused. Crist’s attacks on Big Oil began a process where he would challenge Bush’s thinking on a number important points.
While both the state and national Republican Party went crazy in trying to keep Terry Schiavo alive, Crist himself as the state’s highest ranking law enforcement official wisely stayed out of the fray. While conservative felt betrayed by Crist he showed a willingness to buck party orthodoxy that served him well as he sought the Governorship in 2006. Crist’s non-action on the Schiavo matter fueled activists disdain for him and it was no surprise when many of Jeb Bush’s top operatives popped up in the camp of Tom Gallagher, Crist’s 2006 Republican Primary opponent.
On civil rights Crist bucked the party line often, though it should be noted Florida Republicans tended to be to the left of the national Republican Party on Civil Rights issues throughout the 1990s. However, Jeb Bush was no liberal on Civil Rights and while he did some symbolic things like remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the Capital ground (something that was done with minimal fuss by Bush) Crist was much more active and aggressive on Civil Rights issues.
As a legislator, Crist was a leading Senate 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 had 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 over time Crist proved to be color blind on the issues related to race.
No doubt throughout his career Crist has been more conservative than liberal. But it would be unfair to label Crist as a partisan Republican ideologue as some have done and as we continue to bring you the Crist Files we’ll give a balanced look at his record and those around Crist who have influenced his thinking.