WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist has been able to avoid time in Washington as he runs for governor thanks to the U.S. House’s COVID-19 rules.
In 2020 at the height of the pandemic, the House began to allow proxy voting for the first time in its history as a way to limit the number of members present in the chamber and to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.
The proxy voting system has been widely used by members of both parties since that time, but it’s begun to fall under increased scrutiny as lawmakers attend in-person political events despite citing the pandemic as the reason they can’t vote in person. Some Republicans have called for the practice to end if the party takes control of the House in November.
Crist voted by proxy 107 times between January and April 7, when the House took its last votes before a two-week break, according to data from the House clerk. It was the sixth-most of any member of the House and second-most in the Florida delegation behind Democratic Rep. Al Lawson, who voted by proxy 125 times during the same time span, according to an analysis by Honolulu Civil Beat of House data. Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson also cast 101 proxy votes during that period.
When the House reconvened in Washington this week, Crist again designated a proxy to cast votes on his behalf. In an April 26 letter to the House clerk, Crist designated Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz as his proxy. “I continue to be unable to physically attend proceedings in the House chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency,” Crist wrote in the letter.
Wasserman Schultz voted on Crist’s behalf that evening as the House took a procedural vote. He was one of 36 members of both parties to use the option for that vote, along with Lawson, who has yet to take a vote in person this year.
Crist, who served as Florida governor from 2007 to 2011, is currently campaigning for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in the fall.
The Dispatch, a center-right publication, published a piece Tuesday that noted Crist has held public events on behalf of his gubernatorial campaign on days he also voted by proxy, including a March 17 event hosted by the Pinellas County Democrats. In images that Crist posted to social media, he was unmasked at the indoor event.
Asked by the Herald whether Crist considers campaign events a valid reason to vote by proxy, Crist spokeswoman Chloe Kessock defended Crist’s use of the option without directly addressing how such campaign events squared with his use of a proxy due to the public health emergency.
“The Congressman has two important missions: representing Florida’s 13th District in Congress and giving Floridians, exhausted by Ron DeSantis’ never ending culture wars, a clear choice in November. The proxy offers a great way to ensure his constituents’ voices continue to be heard on legislation under consideration in Congress,” Kessock said in a statement.
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“No one works harder than Congressman Crist to deliver for the people of Pinellas. In just the last two weeks, he has delivered $320 million in new investments to Florida, introduced legislation on condo safety, introduced another bill to improve health care for women veterans, and spoken out powerfully about the Biden Administration’s negotiations with the Cuban regime,” she added.
Caroline Korba, press secretary for Crist’s Democratic primary rival Nikki Fried, pointed to a February column Crist published in the Sun-Sentinel about moving past COVID and questioned the congressman’s continued use of the proxy rule.
“It was Crist who said ‘it’s time to get back to normal,’ and ‘we should be able to turn the page on this crisis for good.’ If that’s the case, then why is he still heavily relying on a pandemic mechanism to do his job?” Korba said.
Crist’s attendance as an elected official has been criticized in the past. In 2008, when Crist was the Republican governor of Florida, Democrats created the website www.emptychaircharlie.com to attack what his critics said was extensive travel and inattentiveness to his duties as the state’s top official.
The attack was based on Crist’s own criticisms two years earlier of his then-opponent for governor, Rep. Jim Davis. Crist’s campaign ran a TV ad of an empty chair rolling through Washington to criticize Davis for missing votes while in Congress.