TALLAHASSEE — Charlie Crist lashed into Rick Scott on Wednesday, raising the governor's past ties to a fraud-riddled hospital chain and accusing him of only caring about education because an election is approaching.
Crist has been raising money and speaking to small groups of Democrats for months but has made few major speeches. He appeared Tuesday at the Associated Press' annual planning seminar for reporters and editors and laid out his strategy: "This guy" Scott can't be trusted because he took the Fifth Amendment as a hospital executive and now heads "the pay to play crowd" in Tallahassee.
"I don't believe Florida's going to get fooled a second time," Crist said of Scott. "I hope not. I don't think so."
The chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Lenny Curry, was in the room for Crist's speech and likened it to a "Saturday Night Live skit," his mouth agape as he wondered how Crist — a Republican turned independent turned Democrat — could accuse Scott of an "election year transformation" for political expediency.
"To steal a line from Eminem, 'Will the real Charlie Crist stand up?' " Curry said. "It's truly laughable."
Curry said Scott has to "clean up the mess" Crist left behind when he chose to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, and that under Scott, Florida is showing steady improvement.
Crist noted that Scott proposed deep education cuts in his first year and supported a $300 million cut to universities in his second year.
Crist criticized Scott for taking $1 million in campaign money from Mike Hernandez, a Coral Gables health care executive who has interests in two health companies that recently received large state Medicaid contracts. The state said the firms were chosen through a competitive selection process.
"Are you kidding me?" Crist said. "This place is a lot different than it was four years ago."
"Nonsense," Curry said.
Crist had his own circle of deep-pocket donors, from home builder Greg Eagle to disgraced ex-lawyer Scott Rothstein, and Republicans will remind voters of his past ties to the now-imprisoned GOP boss Jim Greer.
"If that's how he wants to play this campaign, it's going to be a long rest of the year for him," Curry said.
Crist insisted Wednesday that contributors received "nothing" in return for their money except a thank you.
Crist said he interrupted his 2008 honeymoon to persuade his appointees to the South Florida Water Management District to stop discharges of pollutants from Lake Okeechobee. He accused the Scott administration of reversing that decision, and blamed Scott for a return of pollution to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers on Florida's Treasure Coast.
"And he probably has a contribution as a result," Crist said.
Crist defended his decision as a Republican governor to publicly embrace President Barack Obama in Fort Myers, and he paraphrased former Gov. Jeb Bush's recent criticism of the Republican Party's problems with women voters, immigrants and gays. "I'm very happy to be a Florida Democrat," Crist said. "I saw the light."