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Tim Nickens

It's not Crist's flexibility that's a problem, it's his loyalty

Republicans are missing a broader concern about Gov. Charlie Crist's judgment as they complain about his firm but flexible positions on issues ranging from education reform to oil drilling to abortion rights.

An open mind that reacts to evolving events is more appealing than one that strictly follows rigid ideology. What is more disturbing than Crist's flexibility on policy is his weakness for protecting and rewarding loyalists. Three of the most obvious examples:

• Indicted former Republican Party chairman Jim Greer. Why Crist chose an obscure Central Florida fundraiser to lead the state party in 2007 remains mystifying. An Orlando Sentinel story in April traced the beginning of their relationship to the days when Crist was a deputy secretary at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and Greer was an intermediary for bars and restaurants with regulatory issues. Crist was widely expected to choose respected former House Speaker Allan Bense as state party chairman, and he surprised virtually everyone by picking Greer.

As complaints grew about Greer's lavish spending and disrespect of grass roots supporters, Crist did not listen. He stood behind Greer even after Greer resigned this year under pressure from other top elected Republicans and an army of party activists. He said he was "surprised and disappointed" last week after Greer's arrest on grand theft, fraud and money laundering charges —- even though it already had been reported that Greer siphoned off to a shell company that he controlled portions of political contributions to the state party.

"I think he viewed the challenges to Jim as challenges to him,'' Sen. George LeMieux said Friday at a meeting with the Times' editorial board. "The governor is loyal. Perhaps he is loyal to a fault.''

• Sen. George LeMieux. After Sen. Mel Martinez resigned last year, Crist went through a charade of visiting with members of Congress and others about filling the vacancy. LeMieux never had held elected office, but he had been the governor's campaign manager and chief of staff.

There were better choices. For example, there is a line of thought that U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores would have been willing to cap his long, distinguished career in Congress by filling the Senate seat until 2011. Unintentionally or not, Crist disrespected Young and other elected officials in the way he conducted the selection process.

LeMieux has been a very active, engaged senator. But Crist's appointment of his friend and adviser was pure cronyism. The governor's reward: LeMieux chose the Republican Party over Crist after Crist decided to leave the Republican Party and run for Senate as an independent.

"I value my ideals and principles more than I value his political decision,'' LeMieux said. "He will always have my friendship.''

• Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman. Crist's top aides warned Peterman against flying so often at state cost, and the former St. Petersburg legislator kept doing it. After the Times/Herald capital bureau reported that Peterman's trips between Tampa and Tallahassee between February 2008 and November 2009 cost the state more than $24,000, the governor's chief inspector general wrote that an investigation "does not support (Peterman's) statement" that the travel was necessary.

Yet Crist let Peterman repay the money and keep his job.

No governor is a perfect judge of character, and all of them have been embarrassed by an agency head or two. Crist has made his share of astute appointments, including naming former Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth as his first secretary of the Department of Children and Families.

But the self-described people's governor has to protect the people's interest by making hard decisions about the people around him. The concerns extend beyond Greer, LeMieux and Peterman. The governor has not surrounded himself with strong aides in Tallahassee, and he has not reassembled a strong campaign team for his independent Senate run.

If Crist is elected to the Senate, he will not be hostage to any political party's leadership. He will have to independently judge which senators to cultivate, which longtime congressional staffers to trust and which lobbyists to turn to for reliable information. He will have to decide when to be loyal and when to cut someone loose.

The governor's track record in making these sorts of judgments is not reassuring.

It's not Crist's flexibility that's a problem, it's his loyalty 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 7:23pm]

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