TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist is returning to his populist roots, but the Legislature won't follow him down that road.
In fact, many lawmakers would rather run Crist out of town.
Amid mounting bitterness between the independent governor and Republican legislators, a special session prompted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will open Tuesday. But rather than focusing on a referendum to ban offshore drilling in the state Constitution, as the governor wants, the gathering is likely to be a gripe session with most of the rhetoric aimed not at BP or the oil industry, but at Crist.
"I think it's completely unnecessary," said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, in a view expressed by others. "There's absolutely no reason we have to go and create a law for something that's already unlawful."
Crist may not say so publicly, but that's just fine with him. He wants to use Tallahassee politicians as a foil, and lawmakers appear to be playing into his hands. Crist, who quit the GOP and launched an independent run for the U.S. Senate, is eager to condemn legislative inaction as more proof that partisan politics is a dismal failure.
"They put the interests of special interests or their party ideology ahead of what's right for the people," Crist said. "They've lost their way. They've completely lost their way, and the people know it. And if they go down this path, they'll demonstrate it in regrettable glory."
As the resilient Crist seeks to forge a fresh identity as a U.S. Senate candidate liberated from rigid partisanship, he'll try to use the brickbats directed at him in the Capitol this week to his political advantage.
Is a session needed?
The seeds for the current clash were sown on April 29. That was the day Crist turned his back on the Republican Party and repackaged himself as an independent to revive his sputtering U.S. Senate campaign.
Many Republicans saw that as an act of opportunism by the one-term governor.
Dozens of Republican legislators who supported Crist when he was a Republican are now openly accusing him of political grandstanding. Some are still seething because Crist vetoed their projects in the new state budget, and now they say he is wasting taxpayer money by convening a special session for something they say is not needed because, by statute, near-shore drilling is already against the law in Florida.
Advocates of a constitutional amendment say the current ban is only as permanent as the next legislative session. Indeed, in 2009 the House passed a bill that would have opened the shoreline to drilling.
Hudson said that instead of rushing to rewrite the Constitution, Crist should be using his executive powers to demand more skimming equipment to get oil away from Florida's fragile coastline. "The governor's got some misplaced priorities," Hudson said.
Political chess game
Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, a moderate who's widely respected as someone who does not engage in rank partisanship, said: "I see this as more political than policy-driven. … I would rather not have it in our Constitution, because we have the statutory protection."
Galvano and other legislators who oppose drilling off Florida argue that the Constitution is already littered with too much content unrelated to its core function as a framework for government and a document to protect citizens' basic rights.
In the political chess game in Tallahassee, Crist once again is trying to checkmate his rivals. He wants to be remembered as the governor who tried to give people a voice to ban drilling permanently, a stand he thinks will draw independent voters toward him.
Crist also predicts a voter backlash against lawmakers who decline to put the drilling ban on the November ballot.
"Who in their right mind will argue that the people shouldn't have the right to vote on this?" Crist asked. "It's absolutely an unconscionable position. And if that's what they do, they'll find out in November."
Recalling a recent visit in the Panhandle, Crist said he gained another explanation for why the proposed constitutional amendment is needed. The advice was from a Democrat, as much of Crist's advice is these days — in this case from Bob Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator.
"Number one, it will say that Florida is not an oil state, and it will make that statement, loud and clear," Crist said. "Florida's a place where we believe in protecting our beaches — and I got that from Senator Graham."
GOP gripes about Crist
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, agreed there should be a special session this week, but he wanted it to focus on economic relief for his northwest Florida constituents, not to amend the Constitution. Gaetz echoed the criticism that Crist is using the amendment to attract oil drilling opponents to the polls in hopes they will also vote for Crist for the U.S. Senate.
"He dismissed the economic pain and suffering as not being time-sensitive, and the only thing that's time-sensitive is him wanting to remake the electorate for his November election," Gaetz said. "I can see why that's time-sensitive. But in my area, people are concerned about getting through the month, how they are going to keep their employees on the job, and keep their doors open."
Gaetz, recovering from a bout with pneumonia and a hospital stay, agrees the animosity against Crist is rampant within Republican legislative ranks.
"The governor has declared war on the Republican principles he said he believed in, and so it's only natural that Republicans are hurt and angry. But even if I've got 100 tubes in my chest, I'm going to crawl to the polls and vote against Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate," Gaetz said. "But right now, I represent 173 miles of coastline and over 400,000 people, and their needs should not be part of some political equation."
With the Panhandle's tourist-driven economy imperiled by fear of oil-stained beaches, top lawmakers say what is needed is not an anti-drilling amendment, but real tax relief for the people and businesses of northwest Florida. But even though it's an election year, those steps will wait until a second session in late August or early September.
For now, Crist has almost every Democrat on his side, and some of them will likely come to his defense if, as expected, the session devolves into a gripe session directed at Crist.
"It's not about policy right now. They are thinking, 'How can I embarrass the governor?' " said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a Crist ally. "In other years, they may have quietly gone along, but there's outright war right now. There is no question, they're hanging him in effigy."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.