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Crist Governs from the Gut

Charlie Crist
[Photo: Brian Smith]
Asked what role ideology plays in his decision-making, Gov. Charlie Crist tells a story. Shortly after his election in 2006, he sought the advice of the state’s former governors. Reubin Askew, who served as governor from 1971-79, told him he’d be getting lots of advice and that it was fine to listen to others. But when the time came to make a decision, Askew told him, Crist should rely on his own life experiences and trust his instincts — just as voters did in electing him.

“It’s been invaluable advice,” says Crist.

Indeed. A year and a half into the job, Crist has made governing from the gut his trademark, using his party affiliation as a jumping-off point rather than an ideological bastion. “Maybe it’s not traditional Republican-type stuff,” says Crist, “but I think it’s the most traditional Republican-type view. I mean, it’s sort of Republican in the sense of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, and Teddy Roosevelt, who founded our national parks systems.”

A sampler of Gov. Charlie Crist's politics.
See guide to Crist's Ideology
It’s a style that hasn’t been universally well-received — particularly among those with strongly defined views about what Republicans should believe and about how “leaders” are supposed to lead. Business leaders, steeped in eight years of Jeb Bush’s ideological rigor, generally like Crist but know his positions on issues won’t be as predictable as those of his predecessor. “In the past, we could pretty much hear what an issue was and know how the governor would react to it. That’s not true with Gov. Crist,” says Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation.

Others in the business community worry that Crist isn’t listening to them enough. “I think he’s a good listener, but I don’t think he’s got enough good advice,” says Tom James, CEO of Raymond James and chairman of the Florida Council of 100. James — a friend of Crist and a longtime backer — says he wishes the governor would call on the council more often for advice like Bush did. “If I were a governor, I’d be using a group like us to study all kinds of problems,” James says.

Crist has also drawn criticism from those who believe he operates constantly with one finger in the political wind, responding to “the people” but with no well-defined policy backbone of his own. “He’s essentially become a cheerleader for Florida, and he’s not providing leadership” on fundamental issues such as economic development, education and water, says David Colburn, a University of Florida history professor who has authored several books on Florida politics.

For others, however, Crist’s style is a breath of fresh air after the highly partisan Bush years. “I think he has genuinely tried to reach across party lines so we end up talking more about the merits of an idea rather than who likes it,” says House minority leader Dan Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach.

And those whose opinions matter most — the voters — have so far embraced Crist and his style. In a state where voters increasingly look to person rather than party, Crist appears to have tapped into the moderate zeitgeist in much the same way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has in California. Crist’s approval ratings — consistently above 60% — are the envy of most governors. And however his policies may rankle some, there is almost universal respect for his political instincts. “He’s got greater political skills than any modern Florida governor has had,” says Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

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.

Governor Charlie Crist
"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.

Political compromise

Crist & McCain
McCain Connection
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.”

Governor Charlie Crist - State of State
“What he does is he starts speaking and says, ‘Oh, Jane. Good to see you. And Bob, I appreciate the note you sent me.’ He litters his speech with this personal arm-around-you kind of stuff. You feel really good he notices you. When you’re in a crowded room, it seems like you’re there alone with him. He’s
like your next-door neighbor. He’s very human.”

- Barry Moline, executive director, Florida Municipal Electric Association

Untested still

In the certificate of need negotiation, as with other issues, Crist took full advantage of his personality, a disarming combination of cheerfulness and determination that has led many to underestimate him. “There aren’t many people who don’t like Charlie, and that’s something you can’t underestimate in terms of strength,” says Paulson.

The limits of Crist’s style have yet to be tested, however, and some believe the governor may not be able to pull off his iconoclastic approach indefinitely. Paulson suggests Crist’s property insurance reforms were a meteorological gamble that could come back to haunt him. AIR Worldwide Corp., a Boston-based risk modeler, predicts that a Category 5 hurricane making direct landfall in Miami and turning north toward Orlando could inflict more than $130 billion in damage. Meanwhile, a Category 5 storm hitting the Tampa Bay region and tracking east would cause about $70 billion.

Either scenario would wreak economic devastation for the state and test the public’s patience with their cheerful governor. “Crist has put the state at great risk. It’s sort of like rolling the dice,” Paulson says. “I do think potentially it’s his Achilles’ heel, and it does depend more on the fate of nature as to how his legacy will be defined.”

If there are storm clouds on Crist’s horizon, however, he remains ever sunny. “I love the job. It’s the greatest job I’ve ever had. You really have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of almost 20 million. I love the people I work with. It’s a lot of fun.”

College Funding

Ed Moore, president of Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida (ICUF), says that state’s 28 private colleges and universities were aghast earlier this year when Crist proposed suspending the state’s Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG) program, which provides tuition assistance to Florida undergraduate students attending a private, non-profit Florida college or university.

Moore says the cuts would have devastated the state’s private schools and left thousands of students out in the cold at a time when Florida’s public universities are also cutting enrollment. Moore says Crist “didn’t draw a line in the sand” when the ICUF schools protested the proposed FRAG cuts. He told them to “go to the Legislature and make their case.” In the end, the Legislature cut FRAG funding by only 5.4%, and Crist in a recent letter to Moore says he is “looking forward” to fully restoring the funds to the “valuable” program as tax collections improve. “He’s shown the flexibility to embrace new thoughts and new ideas — to work with us to be creative,” Moore says. “I don’t think anybody questions his sincerity for his love of Florida. If you can make your case on how what you do helps Florida, he’s with you.”