With black vote crucial in Florida governor's race, Charlie Crist hopes to ignite support

Charlie Crist knows his key to winning back the governor's job is turnout, specifically among black voters. The question is how to get those who have shown little interest in the election to vote. One answer:
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JACKSONVILLE

Mary Wilkerson is aware there's a governor's race on the November ballot, but "it's not on my radar,'' says the 60-year-old from Jacksonville.

Wilkerson, a black Democrat and reliable supporter of Barack Obama, is the kind of voter who is pivotal to the candidacy of Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned Democrat.

His campaign has put a premium on building a field operation aimed at turning out the vote in key communities and has crafted a careful message of inclusion that aims to avoid the mistakes that imperiled Alex Sink, the Democrat who lost to Gov. Rick Scott four years ago by less than 2 percent of the vote.

Blacks made up 11 percent of the vote in 2010, "but if that vote share had been over 12 percent, Rick Scott would not be governor,'' said Omar Khan, Crist's campaign manager.

While the two remain virtually tied in recent polls, black voters overwhelmingly support Crist over Scott this election cycle. Black voters showed up at higher rates in 2008 and 2012 than white voters, but will they bring record numbers to the polls if Obama is not at the top of the ticket?

That's a question black leaders across the state have been asking since the August primary, when less than 5 percent of the 1.6 million black voters in Florida cast ballots, and it has influenced their answer.

"We're not doing it for Charlie, we're doing it for us,'' said former North Miami City Council member Jacques Despinosse. He is using his show on Haitian radio to promote Crist and running mate Annette Taddeo because, he said, he "doesn't trust Scott."

Primary turnout in August was the lowest in 16 years, and the counties with the greatest share of black voters had dismal turnout: Broward (10.7 percent), Duval (17 percent), Miami-Dade (14.4 percent) and Hillsborough (16.7 percent).

Democratic leaders say the primary is no comparison to the general election, when Florida's 2.7 million voters with no party affiliation will have a chance to vote. But Nov. 4 is a midterm election and, experts say, enthusiasm among black voters will be low because of the television-driven negative ads and the fact that not a single well-known black candidate is running for statewide office.

Eugene Hutchinson, a black Republican from Keystone Heights, near Jacksonville, says he hasn't made up his mind in the governor's race.

"Right now, you've got a lot of talking going on,'' and election-year conversions turn him off, he said. "The governor has changed his position on a lot of things, and I believe honesty is a great quality.'' But Crist has had his own election-year "flip-flops,'' he said. "It's almost a tale of two choices — which one do you like the least."

To counter Scott's shift on hot-button issues such as education, health care and the environment, Crist's opponents have effectively groomed a message that Crist's shift on policies when he was a "Ronald Reagan Republican" means he can't be trusted.

In June, a secretive Maryland-based group called Progressive Choice aired a series of race-baiting radio commercials comparing Crist's push as a legislator to bring back "chain gangs" to slavery and blaming his support for tougher drug sentences for "a lost generation of African-Americans."

The ads, which many Democrats believe were run as a front for Florida Republicans, prompted Crist spokesman Kevin Cate to blame Scott and the GOP for "the most disgusting, repulsive campaign in modern history.''

Black voters are aware of Crist's record, said state Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat who supported Sen. Nan Rich in the Democratic primary, but they are "realizing it's bigger than the top of the ticket."

At a recent NAACP forum in Miami, he said, "people were making the mental adjustment that they have to take ownership of this election" and have grown more comfortable with Crist, and Crist with them, "an electorate that he never really had to work with before."

Reginald McGill, who works for Democratic Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, said he knows Crist's record is mixed for many in the black community, but he reminds them that he "took heat from his party when he was governor."

"While Charlie Crist is not perfect — by no stretch of the imagination — I'll be out campaigning for him, and it's not because of the party affiliation,'' McGill said. "It's because I understand he does not mind taking a stand when it's not popular to do it."

Several black leaders cited Crist's record against Scott's: his veto of the GOP-led push to tie teacher pay increases to test scores, his support for health care reform and expansion of the minimum wage, his push for voting rights for felons who have served their sentences — which was reversed by Scott and the Cabinet — and Crist's move to extend early voting in 2008, which Scott and the GOP-led Legislature reversed in 2012.

"Listen to others, including people who don't agree with us: Gov. Crist is not running to be governor of the Democrats but to be governor of all of us,'' Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said at a Crist field office in North Miami this month. He said he met Crist in 2007, "when you didn't have to hate Democrats to be a good Republican."

Khan, a veteran of Obama's campaigns in Florida, said Crist's campaign expects to be outspent nearly 2 to 1, and "we know we're going to get beat up on TV, but our path to victory involves talking to voters and getting them out to vote, and a large part of that is African-Americans."

Crist's field operation includes the opening of 31 local offices, staffed with 121 people and a contingent of volunteers who have made 1 million phone calls and knocked on 200,000 doors, Khan said.

"We know where the voters are and we know how to communicate to them,'' he said, asserting it is "the kind of field program that has never been done in Florida."

But will it be enough to overcome the confusion of asking blacks to vote for a former Republican they have been told to oppose for years?

Beverly Neal of the Orange County NAACP testified during the redistricting trial this summer that she thinks voter confusion equates to voter suppression.

"The African-American community is very fragile,'' she said. "They don't get out and do a lot of research. They go out and vote what they are told to vote, and confusion means they won't go out and vote."

Evelyn Foxx, president of the NAACP in Alachua County, acknowledges that black voters are "not tuned in as strongly as we would like," but she is optimistic.

Scott's campaign and the Republican Party of Florida would not comment for this story when asked about the importance of the black vote in Florida. But spokeswoman Jackie Schutz pointed to Crist's support of a lawsuit challenging the Legislature's expansion of tuition vouchers, an issue the GOP believes will drive a wedge through Crist's black support.

"Rick Scott's priority is ensuring that every Floridian has the ability to pursue the American dream — unlike Charlie Crist, who tries to divide people and turn neighbors against each other in his endless search for political power,'' she said. "That's why Charlie Crist chose to side with his biggest campaign contributors instead of the children — many from minority communities — who benefit from school choice. To Charlie Crist, each Floridian is nothing more than a political calculation."

Foxx dismisses those differences as unlikely to influence most black voters.

"The African-American community believes in the public school system, and when you take money from the public school system and give it to private schools, you hurt the public schools,'' she said.

In 2008 and 2012, black voters were crucial for Obama's success, especially in 2012 when their support for the president drew them to the polls at higher rates than whites nationwide and in Florida. In 2010, black voters stayed home in Florida at higher rates than whites, turning out 42 percent of the vote compared to 49 percent — underscoring what Emory University professor Andra Gillespie termed "the Obama effect."

This year, Crist spends every Sunday visiting churches in black communities and meeting with constituents. Last weekend, he was in St. Petersburg. He's also employing surrogates like former President Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Gov. Patrick to talk to voters, and Khan is not ruling out visits from the president or his wife, Michelle Obama, either.

Because blacks turned out to vote early at rates higher than the rest of the population, the campaign is focused on getting people to vote by absentee ballot or going to early voting sites, Khan said.

And the campaign has employed an aggressive voter protection effort, modeled after the one used by Obama, that engages volunteer lawyers to challenge any attempt at disqualifying ballots or obstructing barriers to voting.

"We're going to trace every absentee ballot that goes out," said Foxx from Alachua County. "We are taking nothing for granted."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

Correction: An earlier version of this story was incorrect on the voter turnout for for the August primary in Hillsborough County. The correct percentage of voters is 16.7 percent.

     
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