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To view Crist's political ambition, look for the pulpit

It's a magnet for television cameras and radio and newspaper reporters who pay close attention to a governor's every pronouncement.

Times photo

It's a magnet for television cameras and radio and newspaper reporters who pay close attention to a governor's every pronouncement.

It doesn't look like much, but it says a lot about Gov. Charlie Crist's senatorial ambitions.

It's a nondescript piece of furniture, about 5 feet high, made out of blue and brown Formica (not Teflon, as some believe) with a portable black fan whirring on the floor nearby, just out of camera range.

You've seen it on TV dozens of times. It's Crist's bully pulpit, a lectern on wheels with a state seal affixed to it that Crist stands behind, day after day, to sign bills and attract free media attention as he seeks to talk his way into the world's most exclusive club, the United States Senate.

It's a magnet for television cameras and radio and newspaper reporters who pay close attention to a governor's every pronouncement, and try to use those few minutes of access to pin Crist down on assorted other subjects.

"You know, when you get elected governor, you get the opportunity to utilize the bully pulpit for things that you want to make sure people know about," Crist said.

Things like kids, women's health and taxes.

On Tuesday, Crist used the pulpit to sign a bill that streamlines eligibility for KidCare, a health insurance program for low-income Floridians. Then he went to Tampa and Hollywood to sign the bill again, and again.

On Wednesday, Crist went to a local hospital, to a different pulpit, and signed a mostly symbolic bill creating a breast cancer treatment referral program in the Department of Health. The bill has no money for treatment or prevention, and Crist said the bill promotes "information sharing," which is a good thing.

On Thursday, Crist was back at his regular pulpit to sign a bill that helps taxpayers by shifting the burden of proof to property appraisers in disputes over appraisals. At his side, fawning with praise, were leaders of statewide chamber of commerce and Realtors organizations.

Sometimes the absence of the bully pulpit can be as revealing about Crist as the moments when he uses it. This was the case Monday when he signed a highly controversial bill that weakens Florida's growth management laws.

Advocates said the bill would help the economy by encouraging construction. Opponents say it will add even more sprawl and gridlock on Florida's highways.

Rather than wheel out the pulpit, Crist quietly signed the bill into law in the solitude of his office. His communications director, Erin Isaac, sent the media an e-mail at 5:05 p.m. that described the bill in legislative jargon as "the Community Renewal Act" and was devoid of a single canned quote from Crist.

This was one of those times when Crist did something that he didn't "want to make sure that people know about."

On Thursday, Crist was asked whether he had read Howard Troxler's column in the Times that morning accusing him of "selling the state down the river" and being "gutless" for signing the growth bill in silence, with scant explanation of his actions.

"No," Crist said.

Asked if he thought he has now squandered his credibility on environmental issues, Crist gripped the side panels of the pulpit.

"Oh, I think that's for others to decide," Crist said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

To view Crist's political ambition, look for the pulpit 06/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 1:57am]
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