THE VILLAGES — Gov. Charlie Crist had barely set foot inside this huge retirement center Saturday when retired teacher Bill Smith stuck out his hand and offered some blunt advice that set the tone for a day of campaigning.
"Don't sign that bill," said Smith, wearing a Chicago Cubs cap.
The 68-year-old is a Democrat and still votes in Illinois, so he can't help Crist in his U.S. Senate bid. But the governor listened closely as Smith warned that proposed changes to tenure and merit pay would discourage people from entering the field.
"Teachers work their butts off," Smith told Crist.
Rick Reichard, a 58-year-old substitute science teacher in Jacksonville and registered Republican, called the bill "a big mistake" that will drive away young teachers.
On it went under a brilliant sun at the Villages gathering spot known as Lake Sumter Landing, at an event featuring World War II artifacts ranging from gas masks to hand grenades that drew dozens of suntanned retirees. The feedback appeared to strengthen Crist's resolve to kill the bill, but he said he has not made a final decision.
Dennis Wallace, 56, of Wildwood, the father of a Florida teacher, told Crist: "That bill seems a little unfair."
Villages resident Orv Van Ryn, whose two sons teach in Michigan, asked Crist to think about the teachers working in high-poverty inner city schools "who are really making a sacrifice."
Crist came to the Villages, a Republican stronghold, to seek votes in his uphill campaign against his GOP primary rival, Marco Rubio, a supporter of the education bill. Rubio will be there Tuesday as the guest of Fox talk-show host Sean Hannity.
For more than an hour, one person after another pleaded with Crist to veto the teacher tenure and pay-for-performance bill (SB 6) now sitting on his desk in Tallahassee. At one point, Crist even grabbed hold of a dog's snout and asked Mandy: "What do you think of Senate Bill 6?"
Paul Gilson, 64, a retired special education teacher from the Detroit suburb of Willow Run, also urged Crist to use his veto pen. But, like many voters Crist encountered at random in the Villages, Gilson can't help Crist in the U.S. Senate race: He's a registered independent.
Only retired New York school administrator Carm Serge, when pressed by Crist to set aside politics, urged Crist to sign the bill. "Education needs reform," said Serge, wearing a Yankees cap. "It can't be business as usual. We have to do something different and the teacher unions don't want that."
It was an extraordinary scene in Florida, where voters usually prefer small talk and photo-ops to serious policy discussion on the stump. The Villages is known for its laid-back lifestyle, where baby boomers ride around in upscale golf carts listening to speakers playing oldies on the local AM station.
"I've never seen anything like it," Crist said. "I think I've gotten three people who said I should sign it compared to hundreds (opposed). It's been pretty overwhelming."
A more raucous scene greeted Crist as he campaigned in Tavares, north of Orlando, where a barbecue festival at the Tavares Seaplane Base looked more like a rally at the state Capitol.
Parents and teachers
Chanting "V-E-T-O," dozens of parents and teachers held homemade signs saying "Nix 6" and "Remember in November." Most of those who pleaded with Crist to reject the bill were women, such as Angela Olson, a middle school teacher in Haines City.
"They can't blame teachers. We're powerless," Olson said. "They need discipline in school. We need textbooks. We need supportive parents and the community, and we're lacking all of those things."
In a speech to a crowd of several hundred in Tavares, the county seat of Lake County, Crist did not directly address the intense controversy over the bill but praised the protesters for their activism.
"I'm proud that these people showed up to have their voices heard," he said. In an apparent reference to the Legislature, he added: "Because there's lots of things that people who do what I do need to listen to you about."
'You're the boss'
Crist then quoted Abraham Lincoln's "of the people, by the people and for the people," adding: "It's what I believe … In this country, you're the boss."
Crist is an intuitive politician who puts a lot of faith in heartfelt pleas from everyday people, especially when the sentiment appears mostly on one side of an issue. At the same time, some critics see Crist as too easily manipulated by emotion and the passions of the moment.
If public opposition is as strong as Crist believes, his anticipated veto could be the big break his floundering Senate campaign has needed, at a time when Rubio is showing higher poll numbers, better fundraising ability and more positive national media attention.
Crist has been inundated with opinions, suggestions and pleas about the teacher bill. But what about the person seen as a major driving force behind the bill — former Gov. Jeb Bush — who said recently in a Fox News interview that it was "unforgivable" for Crist to have accepted federal stimulus money so enthusiastically?
Has he called?
"No, he hasn't," Crist said. "Surprised?"
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.