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Charlie Crist's legacy — an unfinished agenda

TALLAHASSEE — He rode a wave of optimism into office four years ago, but Gov. Charlie Crist leaves behind a very different Florida when his term expires next week.

Crist himself has changed, too. Long stripped of his once sky high popularity and no longer a Republican, he departs as a failed U.S. Senate candidate with his political career finished for now, his future uncertain.

As Florida's 44th governor, Crist goes down in history as the first governor who could have sought re-election and didn't, an option since 1968 when the constitution was amended to allow a second term.

He chose instead to pursue ambition over a long-term policy agenda, with devastating personal consequences. As a result, his record has an unfinished feel.

Crist cites the economic downturn that steadily worsened during his four years in office as the defining moment.

"It was a very difficult time to govern," Crist said as he flew over North Florida on the state aircraft recently. "But it's also a great joy to try to steer the ship of state in turbulent water. It was bouncy. It was rough."

It's still rough.

Foreclosures and bank failures still plague the state, and the economic impact of the gulf oil spill is not yet fully realized.

The unemployment rate of nearly 12 percent is more than three times as high as it was when Crist took office and above the national average. Crist will soon join the ranks of the jobless, but with extensive connections and a law degree, he won't be out of work long.

No single accomplishment of Crist's shines above others.

The self-styled "people's governor" will largely be remembered for style more than substance, for making the capital a more civil place and for treating others with respect and dignity, except for the insurance and power companies that Crist bashed regularly with populist abandon.

"The populist theme — that was his trademark," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a lobbyist who has advised several governors. "He had the endurance to play that song every day."

Environmentalists, gun owners and open-government advocates generally give Crist high marks, while social conservatives, school choice advocates and rock-ribbed Republicans are among his harshest critics.

Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, praised Crist for bringing attention to climate change and the need for renewable energy in the first half of his term.

But when the recession took hold and "green" politics lost its luster, Crist stopped advocating changes in energy policy.

Bowman says Crist's advocacy of buying U.S. Sugar land for Everglades restoration marked an important step, even though the project was downsized for economic and political reasons.

Most of all, she says, Crist was open to the point of view of environmentalists. "The level of engagement with the Crist administration was very high," Bowman said.

The environment offered Crist valuable exposure last April when BP's oil well began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. He responded vigorously to the threat posed to Florida's beaches and its tourist economy and made the most of a political opportunity.

Reversing his previous openness to offshore oil drilling, Crist practically lived on the Panhandle coast, with news cameras trailing him everywhere. But he pushed too hard when he convened a special legislative session last July, demanding that hostile Republican lawmakers put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot to ban drilling. They summarily voted it down.

Changing the tone

Crist himself listed "changing the tone" as a major success, along with creating the state's first Office of Open Government to guard against secrecy. He points with pride to the diversity and integrity of top appointees at state agencies. He says he has no regrets about appointing former chief of staff George LeMieux to a U.S. Senate seat that eluded Crist himself, even though the two men had a painful public split after the governor bolted from the Republican Party.

"I'm not the kind of person that holds personal grudges," Crist said. "Life's too short for that."

Crist's deft hand at hiring capable aides provided the first real stability in decades at the Department of Children and Families, resulting in increased adoptions and greatly reducing the agency's error rate in processing requests for food stamps.

The Democrat Crist hired to run DCF, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, recalled Crist's marching orders.

"What he wanted was transparency and to get rid of the lawsuits. The cloud was off the agency," said Butterworth, whose own trusted adviser, George Sheldon, has run DCF since 2008. "He gave us direction."

Crist's insistence on switching from touchscreen to optical-scan voting in 2007 largely ended the mockery of "Flori-duh" as a place with unreliable ballot counting systems. And he spearheaded an effort to make it simpler for many ex-felons to regain their civil rights, though the streamlining remains hampered by a lack of resources at the Parole Commission.

Crist also resolved a decades-old dispute with the Seminole Tribe of Florida over the right to run gambling casinos.

The compact with the tribe, made under federal pressure to reach an agreement or have one forced upon the state, broke a Crist campaign pledge not to expand gambling, but resulted in Florida getting some money out of the deal. Crist said at the time it was the only responsible thing to do, under the circumstances.

And he was the first Florida governor to appoint a majority of the state Supreme Court.

As a boss, Crist was easy to work for, people from his administration say. If his predecessor, Jeb Bush, tended to micromanage, Crist was a hands-off leader.

"He didn't interfere," said former Secretary of State Kurt Browning. "He turned me loose and, I hope, trusted me enough to do my job."

If Crist didn't micromanage, he did show flashes of blind loyalty, refusing to discipline agency heads who abused travel privileges. And paradoxically, the same Crist with a keen eye for talent to run state agencies gave Florida Jim Greer, the disgraced former Republican Party chairman now awaiting trial on felony counts.

He remained loyal to the tainted Greer, long after the ex-party boss had lost all credibility with Republican leaders.

Breaking away

Slightly past the midway point of his term, Crist sealed his fate by deciding to run for Florida's open Senate seat in 2010 rather than seek re-election. His poll numbers tanked, he drifted to the center in pursuit of Democrats and independents, and ultimately left the Republican Party, losing to a bright new GOP star, Marco Rubio.

"Hubris, vanity and ambition," Stipanovich said of Crist. "Like Icarus, he flew too high," referring to the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun.

An early warning sign of this was on display in 2008 when Arizona Sen. John McCain toyed with the idea of making Crist his vice presidential running mate. For a while, Crist seemed blinded by the national spotlight and appeared to regard the state's highest office a stepping stone.

Crist's leftward drift in his final year in office was punctuated by his veto of GOP-backed bills requiring an ultrasound before an abortion and eliminating tenure for public school teachers. This earned him the enmity of conservative leaders.

They include Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, who says Crist always put form over substance.

"He was committed to no 'first principle' except the principle of advancing his own political career," Stemberger said. "In the process, he lost all credibility and respect among Floridians, earning himself permanent retirement from the very positions of public service he so longed for."

What Crist liked to call an "evolution" resulted in a liberalization of his views on a range of issues, from abortion to allowing gays to adopt children, that struck many as driven more by politics than conviction.

One area where Crist remained consistent was support for gun owners' rights, notably vetoing a legislative raid on a concealed weapon application trust fund.

"He never failed to do the right thing when it came to the Second Amendment," said lobbyist Marion Hammer of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the state's NRA affiliate. "We always knew exactly where he stood."

Lobbyist Brian Ballard, who played a major role in Crist capturing the Governor's Mansion in 2006, voiced the disappointment shared by others, calling Crist's one term "a wasted opportunity" by a largely decent and caring public servant.

"Charlie could and should have been a two-term governor, and could have accomplished great things. I think it takes two terms to be a great governor," said Ballard, who was chief of staff for a one-term governor, Bob Martinez, two decades ago. "Charlie gave away that opportunity."

The act that defined Crist's tenure more than any other was his embrace of President Barack Obama in Fort Myers in February 2009. The gesture closely linked Crist to Obama in the public mind as the president's popularity was sinking in Florida.

Soon the emergence of the tea party movement further complicated things for Crist, who was viewed by many as a "RINO," Republican in name only.

"He got caught up in that wave," Ballard said. "Frankly, as soon as he reached over and touched the president, his time in statewide office was probably over, and that's a shame. You don't go down in the pantheon of great governors without being validated by the voters."

A career politician who held four different offices in a little over a decade, Crist, 54, claims he has not given much thought to plotting a political comeback.

In recent days, he has packed up his belongings at the stately Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee and plans to return to his hometown of St. Petersburg after the holidays to begin the next chapter of his life with his wife, Carole, who plans to keep her home in Miami.

"Growing up, I never imagined being governor of Florida," Crist said. "The fact that that even happened is still amazing to me."

Times staff writer Alex Leary and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

CRIST'S HIGHS AND LOWS

Here are 12 peaks and valleys in Charlie Crist's record

Highs

• Responded quickly to the BP oil spill, gaining politically in the process

• Brokered expansion of Everglades restoration with purchase of U.S. Sugar property

• Created state's first Office of Open Government

• Saw more improvement in school graduation rates

• Improved the tone and level of civility in politics

• Negotiated compact that allowed the Seminole Tribe of Florida to run casinos

Lows

• Increased taxes and fees by $2-billion in 2009, violating a no-tax pledge

• Expanded state's exposure for property insurance costs in a major hurricane

• Failed to follow through on fledgling policies such as "Cover Florida" health plan

•Enraged his Republican base when he praised the stimulus bill and embraced President Barack Obama at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers

• Became distracted by the possibility of being John McCain's vice presidential running mate

• Placed personal ambition first by forgoing re-election bid to run for the Senate

Charlie Crist's legacy — an unfinished agenda 12/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 12:28am]

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