Charlie Crist goes for it



News flash: Charlie Crist is running for governor. OK, it’s hardly a flash, but it is news. Any doubts were dispelled by Charlie’s appearance last Friday before the Greater Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Candidate Crist was in full campaign mode.

Of course, he didn’t come right out and announce his candidacy. He just kept talking about all the wonderful things he did as governor — protected the environment, vetoed a merit pay bill for teachers, extended early voting hours, etc. — and recited many of the knuckleheaded things Rick Scott has done in the last two years. Like neglecting the environment, signing the merit pay for teachers bill and refusing to extend early voting hours last November.

The former governor never mentioned the current governor by name, but nobody in the room could have missed the references. Charlie, for example, pointed out that climate change, which he believes in, is responsible for rising sea levels that threaten Florida’s coastline. Charlie also believes global warming is man made. Rick Scott does not. “I haven’t seen the evidence,” Scott told me when he was running for governor.

Scott campaigned as a strong supporter of Arizona’s anti-immigration law and promised to enact a similar one in Florida. He hasn’t, for which we should be grateful. Charlie is. “This should never be a country that says we should not accept others,” Charlie told the Hollywood Chamber, “that’s ignorance to me. Where’s the heart?”

No one will ever accuse Charlie Crist of lacking heart. He’s all heart. All empathy. All in favor of whomever he’s talking to at the moment. He locks in on you with a furrowed brow and big, brown doe-y eyes and strong men and women have been known to get a bit giddy. To feel a thrill up their leg, á la Chris Matthews. For the 15 to 20 seconds Charlie spends with someone as he passes through a crowded venue he makes that person feel like the most important person in the room.

Strange thing is, for those few seconds Charlie may believe it, too. “He really likes people,” says his friend Bob Butterworth, who attended the Hollywood Chamber event and sat next to Crist. “He’s a real people person.”

Butterworth, who was introduced by Crist (a onetime Florida attorney general) as the best AG in Florida’s history, is backing his friend in whatever he decides about the governor’s race. Butterworth, of course, is a Democrat who served as Crist’s first DCF secretary. He likes Charlie’s non-ideological, non-confrontational style. So does Mitch Ceasar, the longtime Broward Democractic Party chair. “I think if Charlie Crist were the Democratic nominee for governor,” Ceasar told me, “that he would win Broward County overwhelmingly.” Broward is the biggest Democratic prize in the state.

Is Charlie running? “I don’t know,” he told me solemnly. “I’m thinking about it, that’s for sure, but I haven’t reached a conclusion yet. And when will he? “I don’t have a timetable.”

Rick Scott is the one with a timetable. He has less than two years to repair his image, although that may not be long enough. As Tallahassee guru “Mac” Stipanovich recently said of Scott, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.” Scott had his chance and pretty much blew it. Now, he’s on a charm offensive, although he’s not especially charming. So he has switched his positions on education funding, teacher pay, Medicaid expansion, etc. Maybe Scott and Crist should get together and compare notes on how to pull off a credible political metamorphosis. Scott is making a sharp move to the center and Charlie, the pro-life “Reagan Republican” is saying that’s where he’s always been. That may be closer to the truth.

It’s hard not to like Charlie Crist. He’s always accessible and gives you a pretty straight answer. The same can’t be said for Gov. Scott. He’s got his talking points and he’s sticking to ’em. But he has finally grasped what a governor is supposed to do and surrounded himself with some capable people. Now he needs to have a very good legislative session — early signs indicate he will not — and for the economy to keep improving. If that happens Scott may have an outside chance of persuading Floridians that he’s not a rich alien from outer space.

He could take some lessons in politicking from Charlie Crist. After a rambling, populist-themed 35-minute speech to the Hollywood Chamber, Charlie spent 50 minutes greeting a long line of admirers and posing for pictures. Rick Scott normally ducks out of such appearances as soon as he’s finished his brief and often pedestrian remarks.

People want leaders with good ideas and the skills to achieve them. But they also want leaders who are empathetic, who appear to show an interest in them personally, who tell them everything’s going to be all right. Charlie Crist knows how to do that. It may be enough to put him back in the governor’s mansion.

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