Reinvention Time for Crist?
Bob Graham reinvented his leadership style. It may be time for Gov. Crist to consider a similar shift.
Almost immediately they discovered they were going to have to cut about $1 billion from their own spending. By September, Crist agency representatives were lining up in committees to whine to legislators about eviscerating this or that program. Meanwhile, Crist himself remarked he wanted to protect public education money — even as public school enrollments are falling. What kind of leadership is that? You’d think he’d have learned his lesson from all the other words he’s had to eat.
And let’s not forget tuition increases. We have just about the lowest tuition rates in the country and no university, public or private, among the top 20 universities and just one in the top 50. Even at our best university, students routinely sit in classes of more than 100 students. We basically pay our best students to go to our state schools.
But Crist’s pandering reflex kicked in, and he vetoed tuition increases. And then he backed off. It wasn’t a vision thing; he didn’t come out for a great university system. He just caved, at least for the best-connected universities.
Once staunch against expanded gambling, by August Crist was negotiating with the Seminole tribe to authorize more slot machines in exchange for a few hundred million in tax revenue.
Reason for hope
A lot of governors have had to find their footing after a weak start. The most famous turnaround was Bob Graham’s, after the St. Petersburg Times labeled him “Gov. Jell-O” for some of the same kinds of things Crist is now doing — staking out broad themes but deferring to legislators on how to implement them, backing off on apparent commitments like a gas tax. He wasn’t always right, and his eight years of pandering to conservatives with the death penalty was shameful. Still, you generally knew where Graham wanted the state to go.
Graham remains the best politician to hold the governor’s office. Casting off the Jell-O label, he replaced his chief of staff, his former campaign manager, with the tough-minded, tough-talking Charlie Reed (later the universities chancellor). When Graham left office in 1987, he had a lot to take credit for, and a lot of it had not come easily.
Crist now faces that same reinvention of his governorship.
For a long time, social conservatives have been in withdrawal from the testosterone politics of Jeb Bush. They are restless. In August, Republican activist and moneyman Sam Rashid of Hillsborough County effectively fired the first public shot at Crist in an op-ed column in the St. Petersburg Times, Crist’s hometown paper. Rashid called Crist a “political opportunist” whose only real interest was “a place on a national presidential ticket someday.” He basically said Crist is fiddling around in politics while Florida faces “an expanding economic crisis.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Marco Rubio has been positioning himself as the conservative anti-Crist, gently upstaging Crist on conservative causes.
All this is fine with the Democrats, who love it that Crist takes up traditional Democratic causes like openness and children and felons’ rights and global warming.
It is very early in the Crist administration — earlier than when Graham became Gov. Jell-O. Crist has cost himself some credibility, partly because he fell in love with his own rhetoric and didn’t see the problems that were obvious to a lot of people. Crist lacks Graham’s policy attentiveness (or the right compensating staff structure) to fall back on to turn things around. But he’s got time. And he is a clever politician, even if he’s not a wonky one.
Crist needs to teach the citizens, not pander to them. He needs a stiffer spine supported by disciplined staff work. If he continues his old patter, he’s going to become Gov. Marshmallow. And you know what happens to marshmallows when things heat up.