Sunday, April 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Crist oozes joy, schmoozes for votes

Between now and Election Day next year, there will be plenty of chin-rubbing, thumb-sucking and brow-furrowing over the race between Gov. Rick Scott and the chap he replaced, Charlie Crist.

Think of this as punditry fueled by Keith Richards' medicine cabinet.

Voting patterns will be dissected. Registration tallies will be pored over. Demographics will be analyzed. And, of course, campaign contributions will be carefully scrutinized. All very fair.

But the race for governor could come down to a simple equation best articulated by Democrat Dan Gelber, who served in the Florida Legislature and frequently clashed with then-Republican Crist when Crist was attorney general and eventually governor.

Gelber was among those who spoke at Crist's announcement Monday that he is running for governor (yes, it's true, he really is). As the event was breaking up at Albert Whitted Park and with Crist a few feet away hugging more people than the late love guru Leo Buscaglia, Gelber recalled inviting Crist to his synagogue for Yom Kippur services.

Moved by his rabbi or perhaps a higher power, Gelber found himself publicly apologizing to the perpetually sunny Crist for ever thinking ill of him. "He constantly did things to prevent me from disliking him," Gelber confessed.

And that — in a nutshell — is Scott's problem.

For all of the millions expected to be poured into the race, it comes down to a choice between sharp contrasts.

On the Democratic side, the likely nominee is expected to be Crist, the Mr. Rogers of the I-4 corridor. Won't you be my voter? Then there is the awkward, stiffer than Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Scott, the Grinch who failed to push the Legislature to expand Medicaid.

Much will be made of Crist's conversion from Republican to independent to Democrat. But given the Republican Party's reputation as a political cabal under the brass knuckles of its tea party wing, this was like fleeing a GOP Gomorrah before everyone started turning into pillars of salt.

To be sure, the Scott campaign will waste untold sums of money to remind voters what they already know, most notably Crist's apostasy, including the Barack Obama man-hug.

This will be Crist's sixth statewide campaign for office. In the five previous races, Crist lost two U.S. Senate races and won campaigns for education commissioner, attorney general and governor.

And this time, the uber-upbeat Crist, a known commodity, will be running against the Snidely Whiplash of high-speed rail.

There were a few anti-Crist protesters roaming about, including Carole Bowers of Madeira Beach, who held a sign reading "Charlie = Opportunist." Bowers voted for Crist when he ran for governor in 2006. But this time it was that nagging opportunism thing that annoyed her.

"It's Charlie Crist I don't really trust," she said before acknowledging that all politicians are opportunistic animals. After all, Scott saw an opportunity to supplant a weak GOP frontrunner in Bill McCollum four years ago and spent $70 million of his own money to add the Governor's Mansion to his portfolio.

If just altruistic folks were qualified to run for office, about the only people populating governorships and legislative bodies would be St. Thomas Aquinas, Edith Bunker and Kermit the Frog. But public life doesn't work that way. And so it is we have a race shaping up to pit Mr. Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy against a deep-pocketed dour incumbent who makes a cigar store Indian seem double-jointed.

It was pretty clear the Crist political machine (think of the hustings version of Up With People) will focus on burnishing the candidate's populist bona fides. He is for teachers. He's for high-speed rail. He's for going after BP in court. He's for more money for education. He's for the environment. He's against influence-peddlers. He's against intractable partisanship. Oh, and he loves Florida.

As the 200 or so attendees started drifting away after Crist spoke, the candidate lingered, hugging more people than a shopping mall Santa Claus and mugging for photos with supporters.

Then there was potential constituent Patrick Jaeger, 14 months old, taking it all in from the vantage point of his stroller being pushed by his mother, Jill, directly into the path of former Gov. Morning Glory.

And thus, young Master Jaeger holds the distinction of being the first toddler to be hugged and kissed by a candidate in the 2014 election cycle.

Old opportunities are hard to ignore.

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