TALLAHASSEE — Charlie Crist might be a newly minted Democrat, but he's racking up union support as if he has always been a liberal shade of blue.
The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the union that bargains for most state employees, sent Crist's political committee a $1 million check on Tuesday, the same day he announced that, if elected, he will use his executive powers to immediately raise the minimum wage for state contractors to $10.10 — a union priority.
The Florida Police Benevolent Association also endorsed Crist this month and sent his campaign $50,000 — an amount matched by the Florida pipefitters union. The Dade County firefighters donated $25,000; AFSCME's political committee, the Florida Workers' Advocates, already gave Crist $50,000; and the Florida Education Association, which first endorsed Crist as an independent Senate candidate in 2010, endorsed him again this year.
The endorsements and contributions are more signs that Crist is now the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which has eschewed longtime liberal Democrat Nan Rich, his primary opponent. And they are proof that attempts by Gov. Rick Scott to mend fences with teachers and police unions, whose ranks provide boots-on-the-ground campaign support, have fallen short.
"We are backing (Crist) so aggressively because we feel we have given every governor in the governor's seat a fair deal in treating public employees fairly, but that hasn't happened with this governor,'' said Jeannette Wynn, Florida president for AFSCME.
Eight years ago, all of these unions — other than the PBA — opposed Crist, then a Republican candidate for governor, and endorsed his opponent, Jim Davis. The PBA played it safe — endorsing Crist but also backing Davis' primary rival, Rod Smith.
The $1 million check to the "Crist for Florida" committee was the biggest single donation to the $10.4 million account so far, but Scott's campaign isn't concerned. His "Let's Get to Work" committee has raised $32.8 million.
"Union bosses endorse Charlie Crist. In other news, water is wet,'' said Scott spokesman Greg Blair. He said Scott should be credited for improving the lives of Florida's working families by creating jobs, reducing taxes and repealing tuition increases that occurred under Crist.
"Charlie Crist's newfound interest in pleasing liberal special interests just shows he's willing to say or do anything for money and fame," Blair said.
Wynn acknowledged that Crist hasn't always supported increasing the minimum wage but said that wasn't an issue.
By contrast, she said, once state revenues bounced back after the recession, Gov. Rick Scott refused to recommend a pay raise for state workers, even after reducing pay by imposing a fee on members of the Florida Retirement System that was previously funded by the state, counties and local governments.
Wynn also complained that Scott's support for $600 bonuses for about a third of the workforce instead of wage increases for all "treated workers unfairly."
State reports also show there are fewer state workers as Florida has increasingly relied on private contractors to do pubic work. According to the Department of Management Services, full-time employees working in executive agencies dropped from 105,031 in the last six months of Crist's term to 91,503 last year under Scott. During that time, the overall state budget has grown.
In his first year in office, Scott also actively pursued a plan to ban unions from deducting dues from employee paychecks, a failed union-busting move that many in the rank and file have not forgotten. That same year, Scott initiated a $1.3 billion cut to education and, after trying to repair his record with the teachers union by funding merit pay increases for teachers, he signed a bill this year to expand the state's private school voucher program. The FEA is now suing the state over that law.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Contact Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.