Ambition is the mother’s milk of politics. It can also serve as a toxic brew of hubris.
And this is exactly why I would make for a lousy political consultant. For if Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist were to ask for my advice about a possible run to reclaim the governor’s mansion in 2022, my first temptation would be to grab him by his perfectly tailored lapels and scream into his face: “Charlie! Are you completely, unbelievably, certifiably insane!?!?!”
I’ve known and liked Crist for nearly 30 years. He is without question one of the great retail politicians this state has produced. You will not find a pol who becomes more alive on the stump. As political theater, Charlie Crist on the hustings is a thing of beauty.
Florida politics are Florida politics today largely because of one man and one fateful decision he made back in 2008, the moment when Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced he was resigning from his seat nearly two years before his first term would end.
Apparently Martinez was shocked to discover being a senator requires one to actually show up in Washington from time to time, a job requirement he simply found too draconian.
Open U.S. Senate seats are fairly rare and thus it fell to then Gov. Crist to appoint someone to fill Martinez’s term, someone who would not pursue the seat in 2010 when Crist could run for the job himself. And he found just the chap in his former campaign manager, George LeMieux.
In 2008, Crist was riding high politically. He had easily captured the governor’s mansion in 2006 and had been on Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s short list for vice president.
In this brief moment, Crist’s future was bright and obvious. What could possibly go wrong?
In 2009 President Barack Obama traveled to Florida to gin up support for his $787 billion economic stimulus package to pull the country out of the Great Recession. The measure was universally opposed by Republicans — except for Charlie Crist.
In a now infamous photo-op, Crist was memorialized embracing Obama upon his arrival in Fort Myers. It was the man-hug that changed everything. Before you could say “Ooops!”, Crist was vilified for his support of Obama and was deemed a heretic, a RINO, a traitor to his party.
Given his popularity, Crist certainly had to feel he could weather the controversy. But this was the era of the ultra-conservative tea party’s emergence. And as his own political base began to crumble, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio seized the moment to challenge Crist for Martinez’s senate seat.
The rest, as they say is history. Rubio won the Republican senate primary and the general election. Crist was forced to run as a third-party candidate with no money and no party machinery working on his behalf.
Or look at it this way. Had Martinez simply remained in the Senate he probably would have won reelection in 2010. Crist would have run and probably won a second term as governor, giving him time to mend fences with his party. Then Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and then Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum would have also likely remained in their jobs.
That means Rick Scott would have merely remained the blowhard at the end of the bar in the men’s grill of his country club in Naples. And Marco Rubio, after twiddling his thumbs for a few years, might have possibly been elected to the House of Representatives.
Florida’s political landscape would look vastly different today had Mel Martinez not gone all Maynard G. Krebs on everyone over the prospect of having to “Work!”
Fate eventually smiled on Charlie Crist, who had become a Democrat. In 2016, Crist was given a second chance at a political career when he defeated Republican David Jolly to go to Congress representing St. Petersburg.
Crist easily has been reelected ever since. Should Democrats hold onto the majority his prospects of moving up the congressional power food chain with increasingly influential committee assignments are excellent. All in all it’s not a bad life for the soon to be 65-year-old happy warrior.
The 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary field will likely be crowded with candidates including possibly Orlando area Rep. Val Demings, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and former congresswoman Gwen Graham, among others.
Still, a Crist run for Tallahassee seemed inevitable. After all, old war horses never die. They just keep looking for greener pastures of ballots.