For all of its challenges, Florida remains a place of promise and possibility, great resilience and untapped potential, entrepreneurial spirit and remarkable diversity. Charlie Crist understands this state and cares about its people and their aspirations, their struggles to make ends meet and their dreams for the future. His return to the Governor's Mansion would advance Florida's best interests and send a message that the concerns of average Floridians are more important than big money and rigid ideology.
The last four years have seen significant improvement in Florida's business climate, largely the result of an improving national economy rather than any particular efforts by Gov. Rick Scott. Meanwhile, key priorities directly influenced by state government have badly eroded under a governor and Legislature that care more about the welfare of the state's biggest business interests than the issues that matter most to Floridians.
Education. Public schools are at a crossroads, chronically underfunded and losing ground in Tallahassee to charter schools, virtual schools and private schools. School superintendents, teachers and parents are frustrated by the state's determination to implement new standardized tests without enough preparation and by a stubborn refusal to listen to their concerns.
Crist is a product of St. Petersburg's public schools and a former education commissioner who supports teachers and recognizes the importance of quality public education. As the Republican governor, he signed into law record per student spending that has not been matched. He vetoed legislation to end teacher tenure that Scott later signed into law. Crist does not seek further expansion of vouchers for private school tuition. The Democratic nominee supports Florida's version of the Common Core State Standards, but he criticizes the state's clumsy attempt to quickly implement them and would consider suspending next spring's tests.
Consumer protection. Scott cares about corporations and boasts of the millions in tax breaks he has promised in return for creating jobs. Crist cares more about the average Floridians holding those jobs. High electric bills? As attorney general and as governor, Crist fought large rate increases by telephone companies and electric utilities. As governor, he appointed consumer-friendly voices to the Florida Public Service Commission and the Senate refused to confirm them. He promoted a progressive energy policy through executive orders that have been ignored or overturned. Crist supports the repeal of the 2006 law that enables Duke Energy to charge ratepayers more than $3 billion for nuclear power plants that are closed or were never built. He also would pursue aggressive strategies to encourage renewable energy. The electric utilities recognize what is at stake in this election; Duke and Florida Power & Light have contributed at least $2.5 million to Scott's re-election effort and the Republican Party.
High property insurance premiums? Crist insisted after the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 that the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. initially freeze rates and then cap annual rate increases at 10 percent. He opposes pushing Citizens policyholders to move to smaller private companies that are unfamiliar and untested.
Access to health care. Crist would call a special session of the Legislature and demand that Florida accept billions in federal Medicaid money to cover more than 800,000 uninsured residents. Prominent business groups, the Florida Medical Association and hospitals support taking the money. They recognize helping more Floridians obtain coverage would improve individual lives and boost the state's economy. Yet Scott made little or no effort to persuade Republican legislators to accept the federal money even though he said he favored taking it.
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The environment. As governor, Crist signed state budgets that spent wisely to preserve sensitive lands. He negotiated an ambitious deal to buy land from U.S. Sugar to preserve the Everglades. He held a summit on climate change, and he generally held the line against oil drilling in the gulf.
If he returns to Tallahassee, Crist pledges to re-empower the Department of Environmental Protection and the regional water management districts to protect sensitive lands and wetlands rather than make it easier for developers to build on them. He would explore options for addressing climate change.
Scott embarked on a foolish effort to sell preserved lands that went nowhere, eviscerated the water management districts and has not pursued more land purchases from U.S. Sugar. Rather than provide leadership, he will not say whether he believes humans contribute to climate change.
Individual liberty. Crist expanded early voting and then ordered the polls to stay open later when the lines were long on Election Day in 2008. Scott signed a 2011 law that reduced early voting, and his attempt to purge the voter rolls close to the 2012 election was blocked by the Justice Department and county elections supervisors. Florida had the nation's longest waiting times to vote in 2012, and some early voting days were restored for this year.
In one of his early acts as governor, Crist led the effort to streamline the restoration of some civil rights for many felons to help them re-enter society and get jobs. That policy was reversed by the incumbent governor and Cabinet. Crist would revisit that issue if he wins another term.
As attorney general, Crist bucked powerful members of his own party and stayed out of the national fight over disconnecting Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, considering it a privacy issue. He has supported some abortion restrictions but has not led those efforts and does not favor additional restrictions. Like many Floridians, Crist has evolved in his thinking on allowing gay couples to marry. He now supports legalizing gay marriage and says Florida should stop defending a state ban that several courts have ruled is unconstitutional.
Government-in-the-sunshine. Floridians are proud of the state's strong tradition of public records and open government. Crist established the first office of open government in the governor's office to act as an advocate for those seeking records. He would direct state agencies to release records when reporters sought them. Scott treats public records laws as a nuisance to be avoided. Sunburst, his effort to place his office's emails on line, was a bust. He releases far fewer details about his schedule and travel than his predecessors, and there is evidence his staff has hidden public business by using their private email accounts.
Tampa Bay. Crist would look out for Tampa Bay in ways Scott has not. He would not have rejected billions in federal money to build high-speed rail from Orlando to Tampa, which would have created jobs and boosted tourism when the economy was on its knees. He would not have allowed a powerful state senator to steal the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus and create an unneeded new university. He would not have advanced significant Pinellas road projects by slapping tolls on them. And he would not have stood quietly as Duke Energy charged the highest electric rates among the state's three largest investor-owned utilities.
Crist is a populist who is not routinely driven by partisanship or rigid ideology. As a Republican governor, his embrace of President Barack Obama and federal stimulus money during the economic collapse saved thousands of jobs and paid for significant public works projects but cost him support within his party. As a Democrat, he remains generally supportive of gun rights and opposed to tax increases.
To be sure, Crist is not perfect. He cares too little about the details of public policy. He can shift positions on issues based on political winds as much as a genuine change in heart. He was not smart in choosing some of his closest political advisers and fundraisers, including at least two who wound up in prison. In a second administration, he should spend more time consulting statesmen such as Bob Butterworth, the former attorney general, and Bob Graham, the former governor and U.S. senator, and less time associating with political party hacks and fundraisers.
Crist likely would have won re-election as the Republican governor in 2010 and would be finishing his second term now. Instead, he made his biggest mistake by pursuing his political career and jumping at the chance to run for an open U.S. Senate seat. He lost the support of his political party, and he failed in his bid as an independent candidate. But Florida is the land of second chances and fresh starts, and voters should give him one now.
Over the years, Crist has stood up to the powerful and been an effective advocate for average Floridians. He knows Florida and Tampa Bay, and as governor he would check the excesses of a Republican-led Legislature that is out of step with this state's centrist values.
For governor of Florida, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Charlie Crist.