Campaigning amid walkers and canes at a Pembroke Pines retirement community, Gov. Charlie Crist pledged Wednesday to protect Social Security and suggested an unconventional solution to shoring up the trust fund: allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
Crist called Social Security "one of the only federal programs that's working" and criticized his U.S. Senate rivals for proposing reforms. Republican Marco Rubio has suggested raising the retirement age, while Democrat Kendrick Meek wants to "punt it to a commission," said Crist, a former Republican running without party affiliation.
"I'm the only candidate in the race who is saying we need to preserve it as it is and protect it," Crist told about 400 Century Village residents.
He added: "There are other ways we can help fund it, by creating a pathway to citizenship. Secure the border, make sure we have a pathway that is earned — no amnesty — and if we have those 11 to 14 million people productively participating in the American economy and paying the payroll taxes that would be attended to it, that would help Social Security."
The Republican Party of Florida pilloried Crist's "widely debunked policies that would directly hurt seniors and erode the rule of law." It pointed to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the conservative Heritage Foundation that legalizing immigrants would dramatically increase Social Security costs.
Illegal immigrants already contribute an estimated $7 billion in payroll taxes to Social Security but can't get benefits when they retire because of their undocumented status.
"What Crist is saying is baloney. Hokum," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stricter immigration controls. ''Legalizing them will increase the burden on Social Security."
Asked to back up Crist's position, his campaign pointed to a Christian Science Monitor column by Robert Reich, the labor secretary when Bill Clinton was president.
"One logical way to deal with the crisis of funding Social Security and Medicare is to have more workers per retiree, and the simplest way to do that is to allow more immigrants into the United States," Reich, a Democrat, wrote in April. "Immigration reform and entitlement reform have a lot to do with one another."
And it was Democrats, not Republicans, that Crist was going after Wednesday to support his unprecedented independent bid. He also sent out a mailing this week to Democrats that touts his opposition to expanding offshore oil drilling and his veto of legislation unpopular with public school teachers. "Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate: A Leader who Stands up for Us," the mailer says.
Many of the seniors filing out of the Crist event carried Saran-wrapped leftovers of marble cake and bagels and gushed over the governor's personable demeanor.
"I get a good feeling about him," said 76-year-old Rae Lupo, a lifelong Democrat.
At the same time he is making overtures to Democrats, Crist is struggling to retain Republican votes — but with a different pitch.
"Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate Shares Our Values" is the headline on a mailer sent to Republicans this week that describes him as a fiscal hawk and gun rights advocate.
Targeting voters with tailor-made messages is a widely accepted campaign practice. But Crist's divergent appeals support the relentless criticism by his partisan opponents that he is trying to be all things to all people.
"We're just trying to reach out and communicate as effectively as we can to as many people as possible," Crist said about the mailings.