Crist Governs from the Gut
Nearly two years in office, Gov. Charlie Crist has all but abandoned traditional ideology in favor of leading from his instincts.
No party line
A look at specific actions during Crist’s 18-month record as governor shows how he’s roamed all over the ideological map, from right-wing territory to bipartisan neutrality to traditionally liberal stances and even libertarian advocacy.
On some issues, Crist has swum squarely in the conservative mainstream. He has strictly adhered to the state’s unwritten no-new-tax rule, for example. As the Legislature wrestled with the budget during its most recent session, Crist never once hinted at the idea of hiking taxes as he tapped into reserve funds and recommended across-the-board cuts to state programs. And with the 2007 passage of Amendment 1, which nearly doubled the homestead exemption and made the state’s Save Our Homes tax-saving cap portable, Crist can claim credit for the largest tax cut in state history.
Crist’s advocacy on behalf of his so-called “anti-murder” bill, aimed at child predators and other violent offenders, was in keeping with the conservative, tough-on-crime reputation he earned during his legislative career, when one of his proposals famously left him with the moniker of “Chain Gang Charlie.”
The governor ignored opposition from mainstream business interests, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and signed the controversial “guns at work” bill earlier this year. The legislation, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association and lobbied for by trial lawyers and unions, prohibits business owners from banning their employees from keeping guns in their locked motor vehicles on private property.
On the education front, Crist gave pro-voucher advocates reason to cheer when he expanded the state’s Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program, initiated by the Legislature in 2001, provides limited tax credits to businesses that contribute funds to a private school voucher program for low-income and mostly minority children. And while Crist’s recent reversal on offshore oil and gas drilling has environmentalists in both parties fuming, it kept Crist in the ideological fold with Sen. John McCain, U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and other national Republican leaders. Crist, who until recently opposed the prospect of drilling off Florida’s coast, says his position is merely “evolving” in response to consumer concerns about escalating gas prices.
"I think people get so frustrated with Washington and ... the bickering between the parties, rather than the focus being on helping people."
- Gov. Charlie Crist
But the “people’s governor,” as Crist likes to call himself, is hardly a paragon of conservative orthodoxy. Early in his term, Crist sided with Democrats in calling for the state to ditch its touch-screen voting equipment in favor of optical scanners that create a paper record of every ballot cast. Crist says the views of U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Boca Raton with whom he had served in the state Senate in the 1990s, had swayed him. “You go to the bank and get a receipt from your ATM machine. You go to the grocery store or the gas station, you get a receipt. Why not for the most precious act that we in a democracy get to exercise, a right to vote, wouldn’t you have a receipt, in essence, a paper trail?”
Crist took up yet another “liberal” cause when he lowered the hurdles for restoring the voting rights of convicted felons. Crist sees it simply as an issue of fairness. “It seems to me that if you believe in that concept of people paying their debt to society — well, if they’ve paid their debt, they’ve paid their debt.”
|"I think Charlie’s brought a form of leadership that’s much different, but
I think people like it because it allows for free thought and thought from all sides. Charlie once said to me a long time ago, ‘The best ideas are not in Charlie Crist’s head; they’re out amongst the people.’ "
— Deveron Gibbons, vice president of public affairs, Amscot Financial
On the populist front, one of Crist’s first moves was to issue an executive order creating an Office of Open Government charged with ensuring that state agencies are complying with Sunshine and public records laws. The same order instructed government agencies to use plain and clear language in their published material.
When it comes to hot-button social issues, Crist walks a line apparently calculated not to put him too far from the middle. While he says he’s anti-abortion and continues to oppose gay marriage and gay adoptions, he supports civil unions and has favored limited stem cell research. As attorney general in 2005, he declined to get involved in the Terri Schiavo case. Crist’s father, a St. Petersburg physician and one of the his closest confidantes, told Time magazine that he had seen Schiavo’s brain scans and told his son there was no hope for recovery.
Crist has taken some pains to ensure that Bush’s ideological shadow didn’t fall too far across his own administration. Upon taking office, Crist withdrew the names of 283 people Bush had nominated to serve on more than 100 state boards and began installing his own picks. Crist also removed two Bush appointees from the Florida Public Service Commission, saying he was seeking more “consumer-oriented” representatives. Crist also broke ranks with other Bush initiatives: He supported legislative efforts to reduce the emphasis of FCAT results in grading schools and initiated a top-to-bottom review of Bush’s privatization efforts in state government. One result was the end of a 3-year-old privatization project intended to streamline the state’s accounting system.