Frustrated voters want change in Washington and an end to gridlock in Congress. But to break through the status quo, we must dare to be different. The U.S. Senate race offers a unique opportunity to choose independence over partisanship, civility over anger and common sense over partisan orthodoxy. The Times recommends Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent candidate who best reflects those values and Florida's mainstream sensibilities. • There are more conventional choices. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami is the long-shot Democrat with the reliably liberal voting record. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami is the conservative Republican and darling of the tea party movement. They represent more of the same rigid thinking and polarization that is paralyzing the Senate.
Whatever his flaws, Crist offers a fresh approach and is well known to Floridians. He moves easily among Republicans and Democrats who are not party activists. He is fiscally conservative and socially moderate. He has praised Ronald Reagan and embraced Barack Obama. He respects differing opinions, adopts good ideas regardless of their source and treats everyone with uncommon decency. That is the prescription for restoring the Senate's once-proud tradition of collaboration and compromise.
Democrats attack Crist for being too conservative, and Republicans attack him for being too liberal. Both sides accuse him of shifting positions to please everyone, and there is some truth in that. But it was his willingness to stand on conviction that left Crist so at odds with the Republican Party that he had to run for the Senate as an independent.
The final straw came this spring, when Crist vetoed the education bill that would have dramatically changed the way teachers are paid and evaluated. Republicans rammed the bill through the Legislature with no input from teachers or patience for dissent, and they expected the governor to go along. They later complained Crist originally supported the bill and flip-flopped for political gain. But the legislation's general merits were undermined by its flawed specifics. The governor was right to veto it.
That was not the first time Crist refused to join a Republican stampede. As attorney general, he was not among the Republicans in Tallahassee and Washington who tried to trample on the constitutional right to privacy in the Terri Schiavo feeding tube case. In a highly charged national debate, Crist quietly stuck to his convictions that government should stay out of an individual's most private decisions.
Ironically, Crist's biggest failures as governor came when he strayed from his populist instincts and acquiesced to the Republican leadership, especially in the Legislature. He has a solid environmental record but let the Legislature gut the growth management law last year to please powerful developers. He is a strong advocate for open government but let lawmakers take key water management district decisions out of the sunshine.
Four years ago, we did not recommend Crist for governor in the general election, and our concerns proved to be well placed. Rather than address Florida's unfair and antiquated tax system, he made matters worse. He offered no long-term solution to the property insurance crisis. But overall, the first governor from St. Petersburg exceeded our expectations. He steered the state reasonably well through an economic crisis and acted as a moderate check to an arrogant, right-wing Legislature beholden to special interests.
Crist, 54, vetoed an assault on abortion rights this spring. He stood up for consumers against insurance companies and electric utilities seeking special advantage. He blocked the re-establishment of slush funds controlled by legislative leaders, and he vetoed hundreds of millions in special legislative projects during his term. Most importantly, he readily accepted the federal stimulus money to avoid massive state layoffs and intolerable spending cuts while Republican lawmakers hypocritically bashed Obama but willingly spent the money. No wonder Republicans who celebrated Crist's election as governor can't stand him now.
The pragmatic populism that characterized Crist's time in Tallahassee would serve Florida and the nation well in the Senate. He supports portions of health care reform and wants to improve the landmark law rather than repeal it. He wants to encourage renewable energy and fight global warming but resists the cap-and-trade system stalled in Congress. He would extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts, but he also would have accepted Obama's proposal to extend the tax cuts to all but the highest income households as he pressed for more. He opposes the Arizona immigration law but says there must be a comprehensive federal solution to the problem. All of this reflects a reasonableness that is missing in Washington.
Meek, 44, has served a competent eight years in the House. He voted for the economic stimulus package, health care reform, cap-and-trade legislation and financial regulatory reform. But the Democrat has not distinguished himself from the pack in Congress. While in the Legislature, his crowning achievement was a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes that strains state funding and marginally improves student performance.
Rubio, 39, is exactly what Florida and the nation do not need. He says Washington is broken, but his solution is not to work with Democrats to find common ground on the nation's most pressing problems. He would lock arms with the obstructionists who would rather deny the Obama administration any victories than move the country forward through negotiation and compromise.
Even more concerning, there is a yawning gulf between Rubio's legislative record and his rhetoric pushing fiscal responsibility. It was during his term as state House speaker that indicted former Rep. Ray Sansom inserted $6 million into the state budget for a community college building that was really an airport hangar sought by a friend. It was Rubio who made the $48 million "Taj Mahal" courthouse in Tallahassee a priority for his pals on the appellate court. And it was Rubio who charged thousands of dollars to his Republican Party credit card for personal expenses such as repairs to the family minivan, groceries and plane tickets for his wife. He says he has paid those expenses. The federal government needs fiscal discipline, but his legislative record and personal conduct reveal Rubio is a badly flawed disciple.
This Senate race presents a rare chance for Florida voters to change the political calculus, to break the partisan standoff in Washington and try a fresh approach. If we miss this opportunity, it is hard to imagine other established public servants staking out the middle ground between increasingly polarized political parties. The Times recommends Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate.