ST. PETERSBURG — Fifteen years after voters elected him to the office as a Republican, 11 years after leaving it in an unsuccessful Independent bid for U.S. Senate and seven years after his comeback attempt as a Democrat fell short, Charlie Crist announced Tuesday he will once again seek his old job as Florida governor.
Crist, elected in November to a third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, said he grew convinced in recent months that Tallahassee and the governor’s mansion is where he could do “the most good.”
“We need to stop the division and hate, bring our state together,” Crist told several dozen supporters gathered under a blistering sun in South St. Petersburg. “You deserve jobs you can live on, housing you can afford and justice that’s equal.”
So begins the long, uphill road for Democrats as they try to find a candidate who can defeat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022. Crist is the first Democrat to officially jump in, but his announcement had the effect of rattling a handful of publicly undecided prospective candidates. Several now appear closer to making that call.
One of them, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, stole some spotlight from Crist on Tuesday, rolling out a campaign-style video that appeared to hype a looming announcement. It highlighted the recent buzz surrounding her rise from Orlando Police Chief to potential running mate for Joe Biden. “Ready for the moment,” she wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has long been expected to run for governor herself, held a news conference in Tallahassee where she essentially laid out how she plans to challenge DeSantis, if she were to enter the race.
Sporting a “Nice Jewish Girl” face mask, Fried cast DeSantis as an “authoritarian” who has crafted a legislative agenda aimed less at the needs of Floridians and more at his own political aspirations.
But Fried did not provide a timeline on her potential run. She said she is “having final conversations” with family and friends and gauging support among constituents.
When it comes to Crist, Fried said he is better off staying in Congress. By running for governor, Crist’s Pinellas County seat becomes open just as Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee prepare to draw new congressional maps that could boost their party’s majority representation in the House of Representatives.
Two Democrats weighing bids to replace Crist — state Rep. Ben Diamond and Eric Lynn, a former Pentagon under President Barack Obama — attended the event Tuesday. Crist’s 2020 challenger, Republican Anna Paulina Luna, has said she intends to run. And former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who preceded Crist in Washington, said he may jump back into politics as an independent to run for his old seat.
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“It’s a time when we need his voice and his vote in Washington, D.C. and his seat is one that only probably Charlie Crist can hold on to,” she said.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat well-liked among progressives and activists, said she is meeting Tuesday with supporters encouraging her to run and will make a decision soon. Eskamani said Crist was “better than DeSantis, but we need a new generation of leaders to carry our state forward and to inspire strong turnout.”
Crist was unfazed by the potential competition for the nomination.
“I’m running against Ron DeSantis,” Crist said after his event. “And any Democrat who wants to run should.”
Indeed, Crist’s first remarks as a candidate were focused on DeSantis and the clashes over voting, transgender rights and tax cuts for corporations that transpired during the legislative session that just concluded in Tallahassee.
Crist was also critical of DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus and the rollout of the vaccine, suggesting the state’s 35,000-body death toll could have been less if DeSantis heeded the advice of public health experts.
Masks were required inside Crist’s event and attendees were seated six feet apart. The precautions were put in place a day after DeSantis in St. Petersburg declared the end of all government-mandated coronavirus restrictions.
“He’s failed to lead during the greatest health and economic crisis in our lifetime,” Crist said.
DeSantis responded to questions about Crist’s run by quipping: “Which party is he going to run under? Do we even know for sure?”
“He has run as a Republican, lost; independent, lost; Democrat lost,” DeSantis said. “But now I see he’s voting with (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi 100 percent of the time, he could probably give it a run for the Green Party in San Francisco.”
The program on Tuesday emphasized Crist’s long career in public service, beginning in 1992 and his successful campaign for Florida Senate, followed by the three years he served as the state’s last elected education commissioner. In 2003, voters elected Crist to a four-year term as attorney general before his successful campaign for governor.
“He knows the state. He has the experience,” said Christie Fisher, a 74 retired teacher from Gulfport. “He has made the mistakes so he knows where to make corrections.”
Democrats will have to decide if that experience outweighs other considerations. Since Crist was last in the governor’s mansion, the party has lost ground with many Spanish-speaking voters. Then-Gov. Rick Scott won reelection over Crist in 2014 in part on his surprising strength with Latino voters. Cuban American voters in South Florida shifted hard to the right in the 2020 election, essentially erasing the Democratic advantage in Miami-Dade County.
Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a veteran Democratic adviser on Latino communities in Florida, said Crist, like many recent nominees, waited too long in past campaigns to engage the 5.8 million Floridians who describe their ethnicity as Hispanic.
“This is, and has always been suicide for us as Democrats,” said Perez-Verdia, CEO of the consulting firm We Are Mas. “This mentality concerns me and will limit him from emerging from a crowded primary.”
At 64, Crist would also be an older, white male running to represent a party that is getting younger and more diverse. Many of the potential contenders weighing bids for governor in 2022 are women, people of color or both, and there are already Democrats who have suggested he should step aside to make way for the next generation of leaders.
“It’s time that we not ignore our women leaders who may jump in,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a rising Democratic star out of West Park. “I don’t just say it for likes on Twitter and Facebook, I really mean it. I think it’s time for us to not count our women out, and we need to lift them up to lead.”
It’s a similar sentiment Joe Biden faced when running for Democratic nomination for president. And like Biden, Crist boasts strong name recognition and a political style rooted in a desire to compromise and bring people together. His roots in a swing county like Pinellas is evidence that he can win moderate, independent and some Republican voters, his advisers say.
“You’re going to hear a lot of negatives over the next year and a half,” Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long told Crist’s supporters Tuesday. “Remember this: no one can take the fact away from Charlie that he loves Florida.”
But there’s a question of whether Democratic voters will dare to pin their hopes to a candidate who last won a statewide election when George W. Bush was in the White House. Crist has previously failed against Florida’s top two Republicans. Crist lost the U.S. Senate race in 2010 to Marco Rubio before the Republican was a household name. Nor could he topple Scott, who wasn’t particularly liked by most voters.
Why should Democrats trust Crist to supplant DeSantis, one of the country’s most popular leaders among Republican voters?
“Because we never give up,” Crist said after Tuesday’s event. “Life’s that way. Everybody deserves a second chance.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.
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