The subject of Charlie Crist looms like the elephant in the room on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the proverbial aisle. Crist irritates the Republicans because they fear his popularity and teflon image. Crist enrages progressive Democrats (like myself) because he’s not only a party-switcher but was once a partisan “Ronald Reagan” Conservative. But with a Democratic Party that is irrecoverably broken statewide, Crist’s candidacy for Governor could prove part of the solution. But first, before we go there it is important to review Crist’s history as a Republican, and to understand that Crist should not be given the keys to the car until he proves himself, particularly with a strong progressive like Nan Rich running for Governor. But completely dismissing Crist out of hand is also probably unwise for progressives.
To doubt Charlie Crist was once a partisan Republican is foolhardy, and would involve a significant re-writing of the recent political history of the state. 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. Crist’s goal was the injure the Governor’s ability to use the bully pulpit while the new GOP Senate majority used legislative session to push a right-wing agenda being directed by losing Gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. 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 and netted very little in the way of actual facts.
The same year, Crist brazenly observed the first chain-gang in the state since the 1960s. The legislation he authored was being enforced, and for that first chain-gang alongside I-10 in Suwanee County Crist showed up in full suit and tie to “mark the occasion.” 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 close political allies of the more moderate to liberal 2000s/2010s version of Crist. (My colleague Ryan Ray will have more on the Crist efforts to stonewall Chiles in a future piece)
By 1997, Crist was firmly viewed within the halls of the Legislature as a show horse and a partisan. But beginning with the 1998 US Senate race, Crist began a transformation from partisan Republican to political pragmatist who felt the pulse of Florida’s electorate. Crist’s advocacy on the environment and insurance reform have been in particular noteworthy for progressives. In fact, by 1998 Crist was redefining his image, pushing Everglades restoration and forcefully advocating the state pay compensation in the racially charged Pitts and Lee case. This case continued to be a big issue in the Panhandle for years, and Crist’s forcefulness on it won him friends in the African-American community but began a long alienation from conservatives.
For almost 15 years, Crist has been for lack of a better term a populist. In this day and age populism can mean anything from Rick Santorum’s attacks on snobs and intellectuals, or Dennis Kucinch’s attacks on war mongers. But for Crist, populism is simply reacting to the nuances and anger of Florida voters, be it on gas prices, insurance rates or education cuts. As Attorney General Crist began re-opening many Civil Rights cases that had been ignored by previous Democrats that served in the top law enforcement office in the state. He also much to the consternation of Jeb Bush pushed for an investigation of price gouging in the petroleum industry and more or less stayed out of the Terry Schiavo fiasco. (though Michael Schiavo forcefully supported Democrat Jim Davis for Governor in 2006 against Rod Smith in the Democratic Primary and against Crist in the General)
When Crist ran for Governor in 2006, he was already being seen by many conservatives as a “RINO” and thus he started claiming he was a Jeb Bush or Ronald Reagan Republican. But as a Governor his record was far to the left of Jeb Bush’s taking on the Insurance Industry, restoring felon rights, making voting more accessible for all Floridians and vetoing controversial education and abortion bills. Because of this record and other factors, many Democrats who are desperate for any kind of success on the state level are ready to accept Crist with open arms, but they must be given sufficient cover by the former Governor himself. Crist began this process with his fiery populist driven announcement speech on Monday. However, to forget Crist’s conservatism on education issues and his strong advocacy of John McCain in 2008 would be foolish. Crist became a supporter of Barack Obama only after he openly mocked his qualifications to be President in 2008. This having been said he was a staunch ally of the President in 2012.
With the Democrats suffering from a lack of a cohesive message over many years, perhaps Crist can help define an ideology for a party that has for years been adrift on the state level. For the better part of 15 years a Democratic Party that in Florida has lacked any coherent message or policy vision other than attacking Republican officeholders and in some cases trying to distance themselves from National Democrats. The weakness of the FDP and most local DEC’s promoted a free-for-all among elected officials to accrue influence and in many cases to cut deals with local or Tallahassee-based Republicans. This has been true as well of Democratic political consultants who have worked for the state party but double dip as lobbyists in front of the Republican dominated legislature.
Additionally, Crist’s switch may well bring fresh faces and new ideas into the party hierarchy, something desperately needed. The Democrats in Florida have since 2000 accumulated a worse record in elections for state office than any other Democratic Party east of the Mississippi. Crist in fact has more statewide victories for cabinet office (3) than the entire Democratic Party does (1) since 2000. Crist has proven he can win statewide elections and understands the statewide electorate.
While serious questions need to be asked about Crist, perhaps he can be part of a long-term solution for the party. However, this does not necessarily mean anointing Crist as our statewide leader just yet, but he does need a seat at the table. That is why here at the Florida Squeeze we are taking great pains to take a balanced look at Crist’s record and rhetoric through the years in our series “The Crist Files” which contains good and bad about the former Governor’s record as it pertains to progressive causes. Also, Nan Rich a progressive leader deserves deference from the progressive community for carrying the banner for our causes through the years. But summarily dismiss any positive role Crist could play in our party is not in the best interest of the progressive movement. Should he be anointed our leader as many in the party want? No, not yet in my opinion but should he have a seat at the table? Absolutely.