Continuing his makeover from Republican to independent U.S. Senate candidate, Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday affirmed his support for civil unions, adoption by same-sex couples, and doing away with the military's ban on openly gay soldiers.
Equality Florida, the state's leading gay rights group, called Crist's statement on a range of gay issues "the most comprehensive, pro-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) equality stand of a sitting governor in Florida's history."
Crist's Democratic opponent for the Senate, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, called it "too little too late." He and the Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, noted the governor had backed a 2008 amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage, flip-flopped on the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy'' earlier this year and opposed gay adoption in his 2006 campaign.
The dustup reflected a central question facing voters evaluating Florida's open U.S. Senate race: Is Crist a political opportunist, as Meek and Rubio contend, or an independent who puts "people ahead of politics," as he says in his new television ad?
"It's never too late to support gay rights," said Crist's adviser Eric Johnson, a Democrat who took issue with Meek's criticism. "If Kendrick Meek is truly a supporter of gay rights, he should be applauding Crist for these positions."
Crist has been tilting leftward as he seeks to siphon Democratic votes from Meek and pitch himself as the only true foil to the conservative Rubio.
In the first formal position paper released by the campaign, Crist laid out his position on nine issues relating to gay rights, including his support for a federal ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and for allowing gay citizens to sponsor their partners for legal immigrant status. But it was the sections on adoption by same-sex couples and the military's policy on gay soldiers that piqued the attention of his rivals.
Both the Meek and Rubio campaigns circulated copies of mailers from Crist's 2006 campaign for governor in which he blasted his Democratic competitor, Jim Davis, for supporting gay adoption. It said Davis "is opposed to traditional families'' and "turned his back on our values."
Crist's new position paper says this about Florida's ban on adoption by same-sex couples: "We need to take politics out of adoption decisions. That is why I oppose Florida's current law that requires family law judges to ignore what is right for a child in order to adhere to what Florida law blindly demands. There is only one question that matters: What is in the best interest of that child?"
It's unclear what, if anything, Crist can or will do while still in his current position as governor to follow through on his support for adoption by gay couples. The state is currently appealing a ruling by a Miami-Dade circuit judge who approved the adoption of two half brothers by a North Miami foster parent.
"If the state wins, the children will be removed from the only stable home they've ever had, and we've asked the governor to do what he can," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. "We're going to continue to push him because in addition to being a candidate, he's the sitting governor of the state of Florida, and he's indicated a willingness to help."