Nearly two years in office, Gov. Charlie Crist has all but abandoned traditional ideology in favor of leading from his instincts.
For critics who say Gov. Charlie Crist always takes safe political paths, there’s his early endorsement of McCain. Crist had come to know the Arizona senator when McCain joined him on the stump during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, but other presidential hopefuls were also asking for Crist’s support, and Mitt Romney was up in the polls. “At the time, politically it did not seem like the right thing to do,” recalls George LeMieux, Crist’s former chief of staff. Why do it then? “He knew in his heart it was the right thing to do.” [Photo: AP Wide World]
At times, Crist’s all-over-the-map style has opened him up to charges of pandering. Many saw his call for a gas-tax holiday as a gimmick. Others wonder whether his reversal on offshore drilling was simply a calculated move to improve his odds of being picked as McCain’s vice presidential running mate. Many in the education community consider him naive at best about the real state of Florida’s universities.
Those who argue that Crist avoids big-policy initiatives in favor of playing to the crowd with small, symbolic gestures can point to Crist’s stance during property insurance debates — long on company-bashing, short on substantive policy.
But the same critics must also acknowledge Crist’s boldness in unveiling a climate change agenda for the state that includes legislation directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to create a cap-and-trade program for the state and regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Then came Crist’s stunning coup this summer in striking a deal with U.S. Sugar to buy all of the company’s land in south Florida. The $1.75-billion deal — the largest conservation deal in state history — will give the state control of 187,000 acres between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades and provide a monumental boost to Everglades restoration efforts.
Crist can also point to his “Cover Florida” healthcare initiative, passed by the Legislature this year. Aimed at Florida’s 3.8 million uninsured, Crist’s plan encourages private health insurers to offer low-cost insurance plans (costing as little as $150 a month) by allowing them to sell stripped-down policies that are exempt from more than 50 mandates. The Wall Street Journal, which had excoriated Crist on property insurance, praised his market-based approach as an “innovative reform,” noting that he had “avoided the typical liberal healthcare response of expanding public programs” in spite of his “often populist brand of politics (such as on hurricane insurance).”
Crist’s ability to operate across so broad an ideological spectrum is well-served by his negotiating skills — upon adopting a position he knows will generate friction, he quickly slips into listening mode and is frequently willing to compromise. One example: At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, Crist blindsided many by announcing he favored abolishing the state’s certificate of need process — designed to make sure there is a need for new health facilities like hospitals. Existing hospitals typically use the process to challenge any new competitors on their turf, and the ensuing legal wrangle means it can take years for a proposed facility to get the green light to proceed.
Crist says he knew his position would provoke an outcry from a “very formidable lobbying group” — and, in fact, the Florida Hospital Association and powerful allies including Associated Industries of Florida moved to oppose the governor. Crist met with his opponents and ultimately agreed to a compromise that streamlined the process and created safeguards to control costs and protect the consumer.
The outcome was textbook political compromise: FHA spokesman Richard Rasmussen praised Crist for listening and being “sensitive” to his group’s concerns. For his part, Crist says he could live with what he calls “the most dramatic reform of the certificate of need process in Florida since it’s been here. I’ve fortunately had a pretty good amount of experience in government and realize that many times the first position you take may not be where you end up,” he says. “If we don’t get everything we ask for, that’s OK, so long as the people get better service. That’s really the end goal — to help people.”