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Adam C. Smith column: The real Charlie Crist

Every day the Florida Republican Party blasts out "This Day in CRISTory" emails, reminding people how its former standard-bearer, who is expected to run for governor as a Democrat, used to hail Jeb Bush's expansion of vouchers, once supported offshore drilling, bashed former Sen. Bob Graham as a tax-raiser, campaigned as a prolifer, and so forth.

It's an easy target, questioning the Democratic credentials of a fellow who used to call himself a prolife, progun, antitax Ronald Reagan Republican. But trying to convince Democratic primary voters, let alone general election voters, that Charlie Crist was a right-wing Republican before he became a Democrat won't work.

Crist has tried to do that himself with little success in at least a couple of Republican primaries. If Florida's most conservative activists believed Crist's claims that he was one of them in 2010, the former governor would be living in Washington as Florida's Republican junior senator.

The man is a remarkable politician who can draw a mob of gushing fans walking into any convenience store in Florida. He also is a cipher, difficult or impossible to understand and predict.

But after watching Crist's rise and fall and rise in Florida politics over two decades, I don't buy that Crist lacks core values.

For all his waffling, flip-flopping and evasiveness on major issues over the years, one can see a common thread: a (mostly) small-government populist, who pretty consistently keeps his eyes on the desires of everyday Floridians. That was the case whether he was calling for tax cuts, fighting ­— and grandstanding — against utility rate increases, expanding early voting hours when lines swelled, demanding stiffer prison sentences as Chain Gang Charlie, or embracing the federal stimulus package that saved the jobs of hundreds of Florida teachers and cops and doomed his future in the GOP.

As banal as "The people's governor" slogan is, it summarizes Crist's nebulous ideology.

"The reason I trust Charlie is because I know his core. He believes in ordinary people. It's not an act; It's the essence of who he is," said Democratic former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Palm Beach County, who has known Crist since they served in the Florida Senate together in the 1990s and has never been described as anything but a liberal Democrat.

"Charlie walks into a restaurant, and he wants to say hello to people. He would just as soon engage with the maitre d' or the gentleman who works in the kitchen as the much more affluent person," said Wexler. "And I've seen this firsthand many, many times: When analyzing issues he wants to get to the position that is most beneficial to ordinary Floridians, for common Floridians who work for a modest wage, for senior citizens living on a modest income."

• • •

Nobody has ever accused Crist of burying himself in policy briefs, pursuing a bold vision for Florida or even holding fast to an unbending set of core principles.

Politics and governing is a balance between leading and representing.

"Charlie would be much more of a representative leader, than an autocratic, follow me, devil take the hindmost leader," said Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich of Tallahassee. "Charlie is nonideological, and his core beliefs are that it is his job to represent his constituents and what their views are. If they want offshore drilling, he may be behind them instead of ahead of them, but he will ultimately be with them and support offshore drilling. And if they change their mind, he will be with them again."

Opponents will have a big target should Crist jump into the Democratic primary for governor as expected. He was busy campaigning to be John McCain's vice president and then for U.S. Senate as Florida's economy cratered. His hand-picked chairman of the state GOP is in prison. He surrounded himself with sordid fundraisers now serving time as well.

Flip-flopping seems the weakest argument against Crist. If a politician flips or flops to the view of most Floridians, will they really punish him?

Besides, in the general election, Gov. Rick Scott's flips on issues ranging from education funding to Medicaid expansion make him look much less convincing as a centrist than Crist.

And in a Democratic primary, announced candidate Nan Rich, the former state senator from Broward, and potential candidate Alex Sink of Hillsborough County, will have a hard time arguing that Crist is out of step with mainstream Democratic values.

As governor, Crist's annual state of the state addresses typically drew roaring applause from Democratic lawmakers and near silence from Republicans.

At significant political risk, he saw long lines before the 2008 presidential election and extended early voting hours (helping Barack Obama). He dramatically streamlined the process for former prisoners to regain their voting and civil rights (earning a heartfelt thank you letter from Bill Clinton). He vetoed a GOP bill requiring women to pay for an ultrasound before receiving an abortion and vetoed a teacher merit pay bill reviled by the teachers' union.

Democratic legislators variously hailed then-Republican Crist as the best Democratic governor Florida had seen in ages and Florida's first African-American governor.

"I care a lot about who represents us as Democrats and people that share our values and people that we can count on to be consistent and to be firm about the way they represent us as Floridians," Sink said of Crist last week, declaring him a disaster as a Democratic candidate.

When reminded that she had praised much of Crist's record as governor, Sink stammered.

"This is how skilled he is. Truly, maybe he was a RINO — Republican In Name Only," she said, before noting that Florida failed to prepare for long-expected cuts to NASA while Crist was governor.

• • •

No question. Amid the 2010 tea party wave, Crist was a RINO.

He grew up and began his career in Pinellas County, the birthplace of the Florida GOP. But when his father served as a Republican school board member in the 1970s and when Crist later began his political career in the 1990s, being a mainstream conservative Republican meant keeping taxes low, restraining the growth of government, protecting the environment and mostly eschewing social conservatism.

If ever there were a time when Crist was a fraud it was when, amidst tough Republican primary challenges from the right in 2006 and 2010, he played the staunch social conservative.

While repeatedly calling himself a "live and let live" Republican, his campaign sent mailers and robo-calls touting his opposition to same-sex marriage and even at one point in 2006 he cheerfully told an inquiring priest he would sign a bill outlawing all abortions in Florida except when a mother's life was at stake. He backpedaled within hours.

Hardly a profile in courage.

Voters are not naive, though. They understand that politicians are, well, politicians, who say things for expediency or self-preservation. For much of his career, Crist called himself prochoice and voted against abortion restrictions. He shifted his tune as his party moved to the right.

"Whether we like to admit it or not, if you're a member of a political party you give a certain amount of deference to the views of that party. What's that old saying — you have to dance with the one that brung you," said Democrat Steve Geller, a Crist supporter from Broward County, who has known the ex-governor since their Florida State University days in the late 1970s and served as Florida Senate Democratic leader when Crist was the Republican governor.

"Crist is a raging moderate. When you're a moderate, that leaves you open to attack from both sides. The conservatives say, 'Oh, he doesn't believe in anything,' and the liberals say, 'Oh, he doesn't believe in anything.' Moderates do have core beliefs but they don't have such stark beliefs. Charlie believes it's his job to carry out the will of the voters," said Geller, who expects a Democratic Gov. Crist would govern slightly to the left of center just as he governed slightly to the right of center as a Republican.

"The Republicans moved so far to the right that they don't permit moderates any more," he said. "It's my fervent belief and hope that the Democrats accept moderates."

Former U.S. Rep. Wexler, a beloved figure in one of America's most Democratic congressional districts whose autobiography is titled Fire Breathing Liberal, is convinced any Republican or Democratic campaign trying to cast Crist as a phony, principle-free flip-flopper is doomed.

"It's not going to work because Floridians have seen the evolution of Charlie Crist, they know him, and he has made no secret of it," Wexler said. "There will be people that say it's just an act or a campaign theme — listening to ordinary Floridians ­— but the truth is Charlie's been doing this for over 20 years, and that's why people like him."

Contact Adam Smith at asmith@tampabay.com.

Adam C. Smith column: The real Charlie Crist 06/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 3:24pm]
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