Everyone except the governor thinks his change of heart on the environment is political.
Published Nov. 28, 2009|Updated Nov. 30, 2009

Charlie Crist's first two years as governor thrilled environmental activists. He helped block a coal-fired power plant from being built near the Everglades, halted a drive to take manatees off the state's endangered list and convened a summit in Miami to deal with global warming, vowing to make it an annual event.

"He was more green than any governor had ever been before," said David Guest of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm.

But since he launched his bid for a U.S. Senate seat this year, Crist has left environmentalists feeling jilted. He canceled his climate summit. He didn't fight the Legislature's move to end funding for the popular Florida Forever environmental land-buying program. He signed a controversial bill changing the state's growth management law. And he has all but endorsed a proposal to allow drilling for oil near Florida's gulf beaches.

What happened to the man they once called "Governor Green"?

"I think he's found it politically extremely difficult to follow his heart on green matters with (Republican primary challenger Marco) Rubio looming over him," Guest said.

The business leaders who now find Crist on their side on major environmental issues say they, too, consider his conversion politically driven.

"It's only because he's running for election to the Senate and he's up against Marco Rubio," said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries, a business group that has long criticized Crist's environmental positions. "This is not a serious change of heart."

Crist doesn't dispute that his positions have changed but says it's not because of his Senate bid.

"It has nothing to do with the race," Crist said. "It has everything to do with the economy."

If Florida's economy weren't in such poor shape, he explained, he would have no problem restarting Florida Forever, battling climate change and opposing offshore drilling. But right now, he said, "my first and foremost duty is to help this economy."

Told that four former governors - Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush - have all called for him to reinstate funding for Florida Forever, Crist countered: "They're not in my shoes. They're not dealing with this budget. I am."

'A leader controlling climate change'

In his first address to the Legislature in March 2007, Crist said global warming is "one of the most important issues that we will face this century."

He promised to "bring together the brightest minds" and "place our state at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases."

Crist convened a two-day climate-change summit in Miami that attracted 600 participants, then announced far-reaching changes in the state's energy policies: cutting power plant emissions, requiring the use of alternate fuels and rewriting the building code to require more energy efficiency.

"I think that as a state, beautiful as Florida is, we need to be a leader controlling climate change and protecting our natural resources," Crist said then. "It's vital to Florida's future."

Crist's climate-change crusade got him national attention, with a write-up in Time magazine and an interview on the CBS Early Show. He shared a stage with singer Sheryl Crow and met with Robert Redford. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called him "another great action hero."

He held a second summit in 2008 and even flew to London to participate in climate-change talks with British leaders. Meanwhile, he halted a move by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove the manatee from the state's endangered list. And at his urging the Public Service Commission rejected a plan by the state's largest utility to build a $5.7 billion coal-fired power plant near Everglades National Park.

"He started strong," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation. But now "he's dealing with a different political environment."

Once Crist became a Senate candidate, his opponent in the Republican primary, former House Speaker Rubio, painted Crist's environmental moves as a liability among the right wing.

"I guarantee you he won't be touting the work he did with Sheryl Crow as part of his primary platform," Rubio said.

Sure enough, Crist canceled his 2009 summit, contending it would cost too much. Most of his global warming initiatives petered out in the face of opposition from the Legislature.

"He had the state positioned to be a leader," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. "For two years people put in a lot of work (on Crist's initiatives). But in the end, the real stuff that would've made a difference ... those things were not accomplished."

Then, despite strong lobbying by the environmental groups that had once praised him, he signed into law Senate Bill 360, which rewrites Florida's 25-year-old growth management law by allowing developers in the most urban counties to add more housing without expanding roads. Supporters said it would help stimulate the state's flagging construction and real estate industries.

And Crist said he would be "open-minded" about a proposal - backed by legislative leaders - to drill for oil within 3 miles of the state's beaches. The measure passed the House but died in the Senate.

"Crist could've been the hero on this," Draper said. "That would've been the perfect Charlie Crist moment."

Since Crist didn't oppose it, it's likely to come back up again in the session next spring.

Everglades is still a legacy move

No matter what else he does, Crist's successful push for a $536 million deal with U.S. Sugar Corp. to buy 73,000 acres of its land to for Everglades restoration will always be remembered as one of his boldest environmental initiatives, said Fuller.

Even though the size of the buyout wound up being far smaller than Crist first promised, "that's probably the biggest legacy he'll have," agreed Guest of Earthjustice.

Crist - who is quick to mention his Everglades restoration initiative - insists he has not turned his back on environmental issues, despite what the activists may think.

"I hope my credentials on the environment are pretty clear," the governor said. "I care deeply about it and want to do everything I can to protect it."

Guest predicted that, if Crist beats Rubio in the Republican primary, he will revert to his old positions.

"I don't think Charlie's green politics were gambit," he said. "I think that was the real Charlie."

Craig Pittman can be reached at or (727) 893-8530.