Schiavo issue haunts Crist

Published Nov. 1, 2006|Updated Nov. 1, 2006

Republican gubernatorial front-runner Charlie Crist says he was perfectly clear in opposing governmental intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.

He spoke out loudly.

And he was silent.

Loudly silent.

The day after limping through a tough nationally televised debate, the Republican attorney general wanted to talk about his plans to slash taxes. Instead reporters questioned him about his debate assertion that, "Yes, I did'' speak out against Congress trying to force the reinsertion of the severely brain-damaged woman's feeding tube in 2005.

Crist did not publicly express his opposition to the Schiavo intervention until April 2006, more than a year after the Pinellas woman's death. But he maintained on Tuesday that he forcefully expressed his opposition from the start.

"I spoke loudly," Crist said in Tallahassee. "I think it's important that when issues like that come up and you believe that government is the appropriate place for it that you act that out, and you walk the walk, and don't just talk the talk.''

The attorney general noted that his office "by not going to court and pushing the agenda on that issue, that was speaking out louder than anybody else did in Florida."

This is one of many issues - from insurance reform to abortion and civil unions - where Crist has been accused of ambiguity or trying please all sides.

Contrary to his comments Tuesday, during the Republican gubernatorial primary in August he stressed to the weekly newspaper of the Florida Baptist Convention that his office helped the governor's office with legal work to keep Schiavo alive, even though he personally had qualms.

"I don't remember that, but I'll check on it and see," Crist said when asked about that interview with the Florida Baptist Witness.

Gov. Jeb Bush came to his would-be successor's defense. "He spoke out to me," Bush told reporters. Crist, however, said he never directly talked to Bush.

There are few issues in the political realm so black and white as the Terri Schiavo case. People either supported the state and federal government intervening to keep her alive or they didn't.

But Crist is the second statewide candidate recently to face questions about how he acted during the Schiavo end-of-life controversies that erupted in 2003 in the Legislature and in 2005 in both the Legislature and Congress. Democratic Attorney General candidate Walter "Skip" Campbell, a state senator from Broward County, has been on the defensive this week for having voted to keep Schiavo alive and later criticizing the governmental intervention.

Crist's involvement in the Schiavo case may be the only common ground between the Schindler family, Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings who fought to keep her alive, and her husband, Michael Schiavo, who insisted his wife did not want to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state.

Both sides have criticized Crist.

"When he said in that debate that he's going to be a leader, my heart dropped. He's not a leader, he's a follower,'' Michael Schiavo said Tuesday. "If he really wanted to stand up he would have said, 'No, this is wrong. The government should stay out of this.' ... Charlie Crist did not say a word, he was nowhere to be found. He's a coward.''

Terri Schiavo's father, Bob Schindler, wrote an essay in August accusing Crist of snubbing the family's pleas for him to help their efforts. "Florida Atty. Gen. Charlie Crist let my daughter die. He had it within his authority to save her life, but he turned a blind eye to her suffering,'' Schindler wrote.

The Florida Democratic Party issued a release saying Crist "lied" about his role in the Schiavo case, but at a brief campaign stop at Arco-Iris restaurant in Tampa on Tuesday, Davis would only say that Crist "misrepresented his position."

"I was up fighting George Bush and the entire United States Congress, both political parties, and Charlie Crist was unwilling to take a position," Davis said.

Davis, trailing in polls and campaign money, is hoping his debate performance Monday night will cut Crist's advantages. No statewide viewership numbers were available Tuesday, but in the Tampa Bay area about 152,000 households tuned in - a ratings jump for that time slot on WFLA - and that doesn't include those who watched on MSNBC.

Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet and staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727)893-8241.