Gov. Charlie Crist's announcement on Tuesday that he wants to move from Tallahassee to Washington surprised no one. In fact, the expectation that the first-term governor would launch a 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate undercut his influence in the recent legislative session. Now the challenge for Crist and other state leaders is to avoid letting one of the most dynamic elections in years divert too much attention from governing during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The governor and other Florida politicians vying for promotions must remain focused on the tasks at hand.
Crist said all the right things Tuesday in responding to questions about balancing his paying job and a Senate campaign. His gubernatorial duties will come first, he said. Indeed, it's in his long-term political interest to reassure voters that he is not abandoning the job just 28 months into it.
But the practical reality is the focus in Tallahassee has moved to 2010, when all three Cabinet races also could be open contests. Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican and former congressman; Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat and retired bank executive; and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a Republican who is term-limited, are all interested in becoming governor. Several legislators are eyeing Cabinet positions, including Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.
As these politicians campaign for promotions, Florida's economy is expected to continue to falter. Unemployment is at nearly 10 percent. Growth — the engine that for decades built houses and strip malls and paid for government — is expected to remain elusive. And the state's structure for financing government — called a "Ponzi scheme" by critics because of its dependence on growth to make ends meet — will continue to be insufficient to pay for schools, prisons, roads and social services.
The governor and the Legislature had a difficult time this year patching together a state budget with federal stimulus money, increases in the cigarette tax and an assortment of fees, and gambling revenue. It will be even tougher next year. Lawmakers already have eviscerated the Lawton Chiles Endowment by withdrawing more than $1 billion from tobacco settlements that Gov. Jeb Bush had put there to fund children's and senior services in perpetuity. They have raided countless other accounts reserved for building roads and other specific uses. There is nowhere else to turn for quick cash.
The 2010 election will offer a fascinating snapshot of an evolving state where Republicans dominate the state capital and Democrat Barack Obama won in November. Has the Florida Republican Party moved more toward the political center with the populist Crist, or will former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a conservative in the Jeb Bush mold from West Miami, mount a credible challenge in the Senate primary? Can Democrats recapture the Governor's Mansion after 12 years?
There is plenty of time to debate those questions. But Floridians cannot wait for a new governor and Cabinet to take office in January 2011 for strong leadership in Tallahassee. They need leaders who will put political capital on the line now to continue to explore ways to revive the economy, improve education and pay for state services. There will be plenty of opportunities for the governor and the Cabinet — and for state legislators — to step up before next year's election. Those who rise to the occasion will be the best positioned to convince voters they deserve a promotion.