Charlie Crist is receiving generous support from trial lawyers and teachers in his campaign to unseat the lavishly funded Rick Scott, but his single-most important ally may prove to be California billionaire Tom Steyer.
Steyer, a hedge-fund manager and environmental activist, is spending tens of millions of dollars in Florida and six other states to ensure climate change becomes the kind of wedge issue that tips elections. His political committee, NextGen Climate Action Committee, has already spent more than $6 million in Florida, considerably more than any of the other high-profile midterm races he is targeting in Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine and Michigan.
More than $2 million has funded TV ads — including spots in Tampa Bay accusing Gov. Scott of helping Duke Energy gouge consumers — but the bulk of it is for turning out voters. NextGen Climate has more than 300 volunteers and 47 paid staffers working out of 21 offices. It's targeting Florida voters up to 34 years old (80 percent of whom consider climate change a very serious issue, according to NextGen's polls), and Hispanic voters in South Florida.
"Across the country, including in Florida, Hispanics care about this issue more than the general population by a very wide margin," said Steyer, who chatted over Kahwa coffee while he was in Tampa Bay last week to meet with campaign workers and with Crist.
Florida is a natural priority for Steyer, in part because of its outsized influence in national politics and also because it's believed to be more vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels than any state in the nation.
Scott has tried to steer clear of climate change, repeatedly refusing to say whether he even considers it a significant issue. "I'm not a scientist," he says often.
"When you run for office you're not expected to be a scientist, but you are expected to be able to converse with experts in a field and figure out what's best for the people you represent," Steyer, an amiable 57-year-old sporting a wool tartan tie, said of Scott's sound bite. "I find that a purely political, transparently political, ploy to shift responsibility away from dealing with scientific analysis and facts."
Whatever happens in November, Steyer said NextGen will continue organizing in Florida to make climate change a wedge issue that political leaders no longer can avoid.
"Unless people, voters, understand how this issue impacts them, their families, and the people they care about, it is always going to be a second-tier issue. So I think it's really important to put this in human terms and explain how good it can be for them on an economic basis, how many jobs this is going to create, how good it is going to be on a health basis," Steyer said. "And lastly, I think people do respond to the kind of obfuscatory and dishonest practices that some people engage in to try and prevent average citizens from learning the truth."
Florida Democrats are growing increasingly worried about their prospects in legislative races. One savvy Democratic operative last week predicted to The Buzz that Democrats will lose seven House seats in November, including three in Tampa Bay. The most-vulnerable Democrats? Mark Danish of Tampa, Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg, Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor, Mike Clelland of St. Mary, Karen Castor Dentel of Maitland, Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami and Linda Stewart of Orlando.
Agree to disagree
Check out state Rep. Dudley and his Republican challenger, Bill Young II of Pinellas Park, on Political Connections today on Bay News 9 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Dudley should be safe in his Pinellas district considering Barack Obama won it comfortably twice, but Republicans are much more reliable voters in midterm elections and Young — son of the late political icon — has a handy name.
"He's not his father. He's highly inexperienced," said Dudley, the Legislature's most vocal critic of Duke Energy and Florida's energy and utility policies, noting that Duke executives are supporting Young.
Young said he agrees with Dudley that utilities should not be allowed to bill consumers in advance for nuclear facilities that never get built, but implied that Dudley is too combative in criticizing Florida utilities.
"There's a way to go about doing things. Sitting down and having a responsible conversation and seeing how we can address the issue will do a lot of good," said Young, a political newcomer not reluctant to stake out conservative positions in a Democratic district.
Young said he opposes increasing the minimum wage, opposes expanding Medicaid coverage, opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, supports Scott's decision to reject federal funding for high-speed rail, supports the state ban on same-sex marriage and supports making abortion illegal except in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger.