This past week three different reports most notably this one from the Sunshine State News have surfaced linking Governor Charlie Crist to Nigerian Oil Executive Onajite Okoloko. This is reminiscent of the stories that surfaced in the 1998 Governor’s Campaign that linked Jeb Bush to Nigerian businesses. Like that story, this unlikely to make much of a difference unless more surfaces. The allegations against Bush were part of an underground whisper campaign in 1998, yet did not benefit Buddy MacKay, the Democratic nominee. Still the reports about Crist are unsettling and while personally I wish they would simply disappear, I fear we will continue to have mini fires like this ignited by Rick Scott supporters between now and November.
I was surprised when the Miami Herald linked to one of the stories yet it is obvious after three days of being out there, it does not have much more traction. Other than a handful of Nan Rich supporters, the stories have hardly made the rounds among Florida’s Democrats. But my fear is that Rick Scott’s allies could run with this and use this against Governor Crist in the General Election. To this point no evidence has been offered that shows that Governor Crist knew anything about donations, solicited the donations or knows the background of Okololo. But that won’t matter to some who are determined to stop Crist.
Mentioned in the Sunshine State News story was Crist and Okoloo’s relationship with Harry Sargeant whom we have previously reported extensively on in the past including the allegations that he is a war-profiteer. The links to Sargeant in the SSN story appear real but I am not sure of the relevance to voters unless more can be uncovered. Crist is running against Rick Scott, whose own record on cronyism and scandal is poor.
Charlie Crist has had a long career of public service. Certainly people around him have been caught up in scandal. Numerous scandals have engulfed him in the past and some around him have even gone to prison. However, I have yet to see a single compelling piece of evidence that Crist has PERSONALLY profited financially off his public service. Unlike many politicians who sustain themselves on “consulting” jobs from law firms or lobbying entities, Crist for many years didn’t make a whole lot of money outside of his Government salary. This seems to be often forgotten by those wanting to throw stones at the Governor as he attempts to return to public office. Governor Rick Scott very well could be profiting off some of his administration’s decisions, and this is a key distinction between the two leading candidates for the office.
However, these reports remind me of what I wrote over a year ago regarding the ability of Democrats to properly leverage the Scott scandals if Crist were the nominee:
If Charlie Crist were to be the Democratic standard-bearer in 2014 the scandals of the Scott era in Florida Government very well may be off the table as campaign issues. Furthermore, Democrats could be damaged by scandals such as those involving Jim Greer and Harry Sargeant that had nothing to do with any elected Democratic official in the state.
Crist is of course presumed innocent in the scandals that were tied to his administration (as is Scott in the scandals tied to his administration). But the perception of Crist and his political shiftiness through the years could take away some of the most valuable issues the Democrats have to galvanize public opinion across the state against Governor Scott. Perhaps Crist has a greater possible upside than any other potential Democratic nominee but his baggage and potential to damage the Democratic brand or themes that are being developed must be considered before he is simply handed the nomination.
The unwillingness of some in the state’s Democratic leadership to properly vet Crist and the lack of any sort of debate in Crist’s primary election against Senator Nan Rich might contribute to the question marks. Had these questions been addressed early, or a proactive stand had been taken in flagging potentially damaging donors, these stories could have been avoided. But some leaders within the Democratic Party wanted to turn a blind eye to Crist’s baggage pretending they were irrelevant to this race or simply blaming them on Republicans. That might work in the insular circle/firing squad that is Florida Democratic Party politics. But in the real world, potential dangers must be confronted and a plan must be put in place to deal with them.
We know the Republicans will unload the entire arsenal that at the party’s disposal to stop Crist. They will work day and night to undermine his credibility and link him with scandal. They will be working overtime to negate Governor Scott’s own baggage by casting the same question marks over Crist, thus muddying the waters.
Democrats needed to be more proactive on this. Let us hope the failure of some in the party to confronting this early on does not undermine Governor Crist’s candidacy. It would be a failure of some in the party not specifically of Governor Crist if that were to happen.
Every politician who has been elected as many times as Crist has some degree of baggage. But the Democrats needed to be aggressive in protecting Governor Crist from the sure to come below-the-belt Republican attacks. Crist should survive these latest allegations comfortably provided nothing more surfaces, but my qualm is that they never should have been allowed to surface because the alleged problem never would have happened with proper planning.