Only one question should concern Democrats in Florida’s gubernatorial primary: Who can beat Ron DeSantis? We’re convinced U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist has the best chance. His experience, agenda and personality offer the sharpest possible contrast with the Republican incumbent, and we recommend Crist to Democrats in the Aug. 23 primary.
Party voters have two strong choices, both with the agenda and the fire to take on DeSantis. On the issues, Crist and state Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried share virtually the same priorities. They want to make housing more affordable, spend more on schools and the environment, better protect consumers and protect a range of civil liberties, from ensuring access to abortion and restoring voting rights to making government more transparent.
While DeSantis wages culture wars and runs unofficially for president, Crist and Fried are offering serious approaches to the kitchen-table concerns of anxious Floridians. Both would work to increase competition in the property insurance market to bring down rates. Both would wrench the Public Service Commission from the pocket of big utilities. Both would push to expand Medicaid, gun safety protections and clean-energy sources to make Florida healthier, safer and more resilient to rising seas.
Their policy differences fall around the margins. Fried goes further on housing, for example, promising to expand the homestead exemption and to halt rent hikes above 10 percent. Crist offers more specifics for protecting water quality in rivers, lakes and streams, such as requiring septic tanks in urban areas to connect to central sewer.
The real difference, though, is that Crist, 66, has done many of the things that he and Fried are promising now. Taking office as the state’s elected Republican governor in 2007, Crist was a strong environmental advocate who moved to jump-start Everglades restoration and who ably coordinated the early cleanup during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Crist signed legislation to expand low-income health coverage and supported increased oversight of the insurance industry. Under Crist, ex-offenders convicted of less serious offenses could regain their civil rights without a hearing, As governor-elect, Crist appointed an open government czar to force bureaucrats to comply with Florida’s Sunshine Laws and to dampen the Legislature’s appetite for closing more records and meetings to the public.
Crist has demonstrated his commitment to put Floridians first, and Democrats should have confidence he will do so this time around. His experience as a state senator (1992-98), education commissioner (2001-03) and attorney general (2003-07) give him a solid grasp of state government, the school system and the courts. Crist understands the power of executive authority, having exercised it; as governor, he would know how to use his vetoes, appointments and other tools of the office to move his priorities with a Republican-led Legislature. There’d be no learning curve in his four-year term. And his contacts in Washington would help as Florida continues to recover from the pandemic.
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Some Democrats may wonder: Why support a Republican-turned-independent now that Crist has found a home (and a congressional seat) in their party? Fried, a 44-year-old Miami-born attorney, who became the only statewide elected Democrat after winning the agriculture post in 2018, says voters want someone new. Fried insists she is uniquely suited to energize the party faithful and more primed than Crist to take the fight to DeSantis.
Fried makes a point about the appeal of new blood. The organization she showed in 2018, along with her advocacy for full legalization of marijuana, might enable her to attract younger and more progressive voters to the polls, especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, and pushed abortion rights down to the states.
But Democrats need to see the primary choice through the lens of the general election. On abortion, for example, Crist vows to sign an executive order on his first day in office defending abortion access as a right under the state’s constitutional privacy guarantee. He also promised to veto any anti-choice bills the Legislature adopts, and to make support for abortion rights a litmus test in screening potential state Supreme Court appointees. That should satisfy Democrats.
It should also remind that the differences Democrats have are with Republicans, not themselves. So the next question is electability, and on that score, we think Crist is the stronger choice. His career across the political spectrum provides for a big tent. Disaffected Republicans chafing under DeSantis’ authoritarian style have a home in the privacy of the voting booth. Crist could work with moderate Republicans in the Legislature on a range of bipartisan concerns, from education and infrastructure to job development and criminal justice reform. And his centrist instincts and reasonableness should appeal to independents.
DeSantis, of course, will be formidable. He is a strong campaigner with a rising profile who’s sitting on a mountain of cash. DeSantis has the deep pockets and the media megaphone to define his Democratic opponent. But that would be harder to do against Crist. Crist was a household name in Florida long before DeSantis emerged from Donald Trump’s shadow. Voters know him as measured, experienced and utterly decent, and unfailingly committed to Florida. What better contrast in November?
This primary is about winning the general election, plain and simple, and Democrats need their eyes on the prize. That means overlooking two other challengers, Cadance Daniel and Robert L. Willis, who are not running serious campaigns, and focusing on which of the two good Democrats has the best chance of making Florida work again for all Floridians.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Charlie Crist in the Democratic primary for governor.
The recommendation process
Before making a recommendation, the Times Editorial Board asks candidates to fill out questionnaires and sit for an interview. The process can also include running criminal and civil background checks, interviewing candidates’ colleagues and employers, reviewing voting records and financial disclosures and examining their past and current positions on relevant issues.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. Judicial candidates may send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Aug. 4 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at email@example.com.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.