Former Governor Charlie Crist has been in the news again lately. This Crist, now working at mega lawyer John Morgan’s St Petersburg office is backing Senator Bill Nelson’s reelection effort. It appears Crist, who first sought office as a Republican in 1986 (he lost a GOP runoff to Bob Melby after leading the primary) cannot get the political bug out of his system.
Continued discussion and 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, turning his back on former allies seemed to be too much to ask of him. However, if Crist’s decisions to oppose the likes of Connie Mack IV (Crist was a onetime staffer for Mack’s father) are an effort to be truly accepted in the Democratic Party by most rank and file partisans, he’s doing a good job. 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’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 2000s version of Crist.
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.
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.
Perhaps Crist can help define an actual ideology (populism perhaps) for a Democratic Party that in Florida lacks any coherent message or policy vision other than attacking Republican officeholders and in some cases trying to distance themselves from National Democrats. Simply put, many Florida Democrats do not understand the states’ voters and the need to formulate a positive policy agenda. In the period since 1998 when the GOP has won 13 of 14 statewide offices and approximately 65% of contested Legislative elections, the Democrats have held a significant statewide registration advantage. In recent years demographic shifts in the state have favored the Democrats, and made it more and more difficult for the Republicans to keep their statewide juggernaut going.
But the GOP has been the beneficiary of constant self inflicted wounds from undisciplined Democratic candidates and an ineptly managed state party. Crist’s presence in the Democratic ranks could either further exacerbate the splinters within the currently dysfunctional party or bring some cohesion to efforts to finally realize the party’s potential.