Every day the Florida Republican Party blasts out “This Day in CRISTory” emails, reminding people how its former standard-bearer expected to run for governor as a Democrat used to hail Jeb Bush’s expansion of vouchers, how he once supported offshore drilling, how he bashed former Sen. Bob Graham as a tax-raiser, campaigned as a pro-lifer, and so forth.
It’s an easy target, questioning the Democratic credentials of a fellow who used to call himself a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax Ronald Reagan Republican. But trying to convince Democratic primary voters, let alone general election voters, that Charlie Crist was a right-wing Republican before he became a Democrat won’t work.
Crist has tried to do that himself with little success in at least a couple of Republican primaries. If Florida’s most conservative activists believed Crist’s claims that he was one of them in 2010, the former governor would be living in Washington as Florida’s Republican junior senator.
The man is a remarkable politician who can draw a mob of gushing fans walking into any convenience store in Florida. He also is a cipher, difficult or impossible to understand and predict.
But after watching Crist’s rise and fall and rise in Florida politics over two decades, I don’t buy that Crist lacks core values.
For all his waffling, flip-flopping and evasiveness on major issues over the years, one can see a common thread: a (mostly) small-government populist, who pretty consistently keeps his eyes on the desires of everyday Floridians. That was the case whether he was calling for tax cuts, fighting — and grandstanding — against utility rate increases, expanding early voting hours when lines swelled, demanding stiffer prison sentences as Chain Gang Charlie, or embracing the federal stimulus package that saved the jobs of hundreds of Florida teachers and cops and doomed his future in the GOP.
As banal as “The people’s governor” slogan is, it summarizes Crist’s nebulous ideology.
“The reason I trust Charlie is because I know his core. He believes in ordinary people. It’s not an act; It’s the essence of who he is,” said Democratic former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Palm Beach County, who has known Crist since they served in the Florida Senate together in the 1990s and has never been described as anything but a liberal Democrat.
“Charlie walks into a restaurant, and he wants to say hello to people. He would just as soon engage with the maitre d’ or the gentleman who works in the kitchen as the much more affluent person,” said Wexler. “And I’ve seen this firsthand many, many times: When analyzing issues he wants to get to the position that is most beneficial to ordinary Floridians, for common Floridians who work for a modest wage, for senior citizens living on a modest income.”
Nobody has ever accused Crist of burying himself in policy briefs, pursuing a bold vision for Florida or even holding fast to an unbending set of core principles.
Politics and governing is a balance between leading and representing.
“Charlie would be much more of a representative leader, than an autocratic, follow me, devil take the hindmost leader,” said Republican strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich of Tallahassee. “Charlie is non-ideological, and his core beliefs are that it is his job to represent his constituents and what their views are. If they want offshore drilling, he may be behind them instead of ahead of them, but he will ultimately be with them and support offshore drilling. And if they change their mind, he will be with them again.”