The best hope for Florida Democrats to win the race for governor for the first time in two decades is a former Republican. Only Charlie Crist has the financial resources, name recognition and experience to effectively challenge Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Scott. While some Democrats remain uneasy with Crist's transformation, he is a populist with a genuine affection for the state and a commitment to the issues and values his new political party has long embraced.
Crist, 58, has a resume unmatched in Florida politics: former state senator from St. Petersburg; education commissioner when that job was still an elected Cabinet position; attorney general; governor. He likely would be finishing his second term as governor now if he had not taken an ill-advised run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, miscalculated the strength of the tea party wave within the Republican Party and lost as an independent candidate.
There is a pragmatic calculation to Crist's switch to the Democratic Party, but there is more to it than ambition. The Republican Party has become so conservative that even former Gov. Jeb Bush has wondered where he fits. Crist cast himself for years as a Reagan Republican and earned the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" from this editorial page for foolishly seeking the return of chain gangs as a state senator in the 1990s. But his values are more in line now with his new political party than his old one.
Crist recognizes the value of education and invested in public schools and higher education as governor. He has a strong environmental record and opposed offshore oil drilling except for a brief moment of hesitation in 2008 as he tried to maneuver to be John McCain's running mate. Crist switched positions and now opposes the state's ban on gay marriage, but he was never at the forefront of seeking restrictions on abortion or other social issues and always has been respectful of personal privacy.
Even as a Republican governor, Crist supported positions more in line with the Democratic Party than the Republican leadership in Tallahassee now. Under Scott, the state has yet to spend more per public student than it did under Crist in 2007-08. Crist also supported investing in higher education, even if it meant increasing Florida's historically low tuition rates. He led the effort toward quicker restoration of civil rights for felons, ordered polling places be kept open beyond the closing time when the lines were so long in 2008, and negotiated an ambitious deal to buy land from U.S. Sugar to help restore the Everglades. He stood up to the electric utilities that control the Public Service Commission and to the insurance companies that gouge homeowners. In each case, Republicans have reversed those policies.
Looking ahead, Crist has started to sketch ambitious plans to turn Florida back in the right direction. He pledges to increase spending on public education. He promises to stop the political meddling that enabled a powerful state senator to steal the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus and create a new, unaccredited, unneeded public university. He proposes a new program to encourage students to earn graduate degrees in science and technology programs. He would lobby the Obama administration to reoffer money that Scott rejected for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. He would call a special session of the Legislature and demand lawmakers accept billions in federal Medicaid money that lawmakers refused to accept to provide health coverage to nearly 1 million Floridians. And he would renew the state's commitment to public records that has been undermined by Scott.
Nan Rich, 72, spent 12 years in the Legislature and decades leading charitable efforts in South Florida that often focused on children. The Broward County Democrat served as Senate minority leader in 2010-12, helping organize coalitions that blocked efforts to erode public education, add privately run prisons and further restrict abortion. She is knowledgeable and passionate about issues involving children, public education and social services. But Rich does not have the name recognition, financial resources or compelling vision to be competitive against an incumbent Republican governor who is expected to spend $100 million in this election.
Florida Democrats have a clear choice. They can pick their party's nominee for governor based on longevity in the party and ideological purity — and lose again in November. Or they can accept that Crist supports Democratic ideals and embrace him as one of their own. For those tired of total Republican control in Tallahassee and eager to change the direction of this state, Crist is clearly the best option.
In the Democratic primary for governor, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Charlie Crist.
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Read all of the Times' recommendations for the Aug. 26 primary at www.tampabay.com/opinion