Former Gov. Charlie Crist wants his old job back because he wants Florida back. And it shouldn't be a surprise he switched parties to try to do it.
"It's a unique race, obviously, for a lot of reasons," Crist told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board in a wide-ranging discussion Wednesday. "To be running as a Democrat is a lot more fun for me, frankly, because I feel more at home."
The former Republican said he hadn't considered running for re-election after his 2007-11 term. He figured he could best serve Florida as a senator in Washington, though he lost that bid to Marco Rubio. But Gov. Rick Scott's actions on high-speed rail, education funding, the environment, ethics, Medicaid expansion and a host of other topics convinced him that he must run.
"I didn't think this guy would win. I don't think anybody did," Crist said. "But he did. And I didn't also think, if he did, he would be this bad, but he is this bad."
The fact he's now a Democrat shouldn't be a surprise, Crist said, considering his core values and prior gubernatorial actions are proof the left is where his heart is. His record of restoring nonviolent felons' rights, increasing school funding and buying land to conserve the Everglades are all the kinds of actions voters would expect of a Democratic governor.
Touting a spirit of working together in his prior administration -- "it was not bipartisan, it was nonpartisan" -- Crist said he would set to work reversing the course on which Scott has set the state. He would clear out appointees for the Department of Environmental Protection, regional water management districts and the Public Service Commission, all of which are full of Scott allies who are from the industries those agencies regulate, Crist said.
He also said he wanted to revisit plans for managed growth and work to address global warming and mass transit, all topics Scott has opposed.
"This administration is not competent. It's not competent," Crist said. "Not only doesn't he (Scott) answer questions, they can't do anything right."
Scott campaign Greg Blair responded by saying, "Charlie Crist is mudslinging again like the professional politician that he is. That's all he can do to distract from his total lack of transparency and refusing to release tax returns for both himself and his spouse. With all of his mudslinging and evasiveness, it makes you wonder what he's hiding."
Crist said he already is planning to work on alternative energy sources like solar. Crist said he had visited with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk about potentially building an auto plant in Florida and to consider experimenting Musk's conceptual Hyperloop high-speed mass transit system.
He also wants to add a cabinet-level trade representative to help grow business in the state and change regulations that are friendlier to traditional utilities than they are to solar. He said he would support Greenlight Pinellas the way he supported SunRail in central Florida.
But the key to the state's future remains its education system, he said.
"You can't have a good job unless you have a good education. … If you're decimating your education system, you are guaranteeing a dysfunctional job market in the future for our state," Crist said, pointing out per-pupil spending under Scott is still less than it was under Crist, even with a bigger budget. "So that's the first thing you do, is you restore faith and confidence in our education system. And put your money where your mouth is. Instead of destroying it, fortify it, nurture it."
He said he still supports Common Core, but Florida needs a committed education commissioner and dedication from teachers and administrators. "Who knows what the grades mean anymore. They keep changing the score to make it look better. It's all a facade," he said.
As education commissioner a decade ago, Crist implemented former Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ Plan, which included new standardized tests and the grading plan to hold schools accountable for their students' performance. He said he still believes in testing, but the system has lost its way.
"We've all heard the term teaching to the test. That's not what our kids need. They need to be taught subject matter," he said. He decried cuts to Bright Futures scholarships and said he wouldn't support expanding vouchers.
The issues facing the next governor will decide the future of the state for years to come, he said, pointing out the next executive will appoint no less than four members of the state Supreme Court. While some of Crist's own prior judicial appointments have had a conservative bent, Scott would change the face of the court, he said.
"If he puts four ideologues on the court, and he would, then it's over for minorities, it's over for women, it's over for choice, it's over for the environment, it's over for public education," he said. "Everything gets appealed there. It's the only thing that's been holding Florida on from complete chaos, in my view, is the judicial branch of government."
The next governor also will have to work with the Legislature to decide on issues such as gambling, immigration reform and Medicaid expansion. While he said he was "open-minded" on gambling and said he supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, his plan to convince lawmakers reticent about accepting $51 billion in federal aid for Medicaid expansion would be to "shame 'em into it."
Sharing an anecdote about a disabled Floridian whose coverage had run out, Crist said he would tell legislators that story and point out, "There's no good reason to not do this, unless you're just cruel, and mean."
Reforming the insurance market would be another goal, since he's at odds with Scott's plan to depopulate state-run insurer Citizens. Crist said the insurance system was cronyism at its worst, because companies who donated to Scott's campaign were awarded state contracts.
Not that Crist is a fan of insurance companies to begin with.
"Private insurance companies are not the consumers' best friend anyhow," he said. "They come in here and they rape us. Not all of them, but most."
When it's time to head to the ballot box, campaign contributions show enough Florida voters already support him enough to threaten Rick Scott, he said.
"There's about 30,000 contributions under $100. To the campaign that's about 85 percent of our contributions. Under a hundred bucks," Crist said. "I don't think there's been 30,000 contributions to a statewide race in the history of Florida. They're hungry, they're upset and they want to fix it.
"And I'm the vessel."