In Florida politics, Charlie Crist has the edge on ‘nice’



Well, it’s official.

With the 2014 election for governor a year away, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist announced his intention to run again — this time as a Democrat.

And Republicans were quick to pounce, calling him . . . gasp . . . an opportunist!

I don’t know how many voters they hope to rile up with this incendiary accusation. They’re willing to bet pretty heavily, dropping a half million dollars on their “opportunist” campaign blitz.

News flash: Most voters think all politicians are opportunists. In fact, I looked up “opportunist” in Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus. After listing numerous synonyms, including self-seeker and go-getter, it said, “See also businessperson, politician, rascal.”

Is this really a winning strategy?

Let’s set the stage:

Incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott is running for reelection but has not yet formally announced. He won the last election by a percentage point over Alex Sink with 48.87 percent of the vote. He is a wealthy man and spent $73 million, mostly his own money, in a short seven-month campaign.

Charlie Crist served one term as governor before running for the U.S. Senate in 2010. After a series of vetoes and actions as governor that angered some in the party, he found himself in a tough Senate primary battle. Crist decided to run as an independent when the party made it clear he wasn’t conservative enough for the shifting base. He lost in a three-way race to Marco Rubio, who took 49 percent of the vote. Crist is now challenging the incumbent governor.

Now, in full disclosure, I’m a Republican and a former legislator. I personally know both men, I have served with both men and I have voted for both men. I have opinions of their strengths and weaknesses.

My purpose is not to take sides but rather to question the wisdom of the current GOP strategy.

Let’s look at a few fundamentals.

People generally join a party because they share a common ideology with that party. That doesn’t mean they agree with every position, but for the most part they agree with the general philosophy. When you run for a major office under that party, you are expected to toe the party line on its defining issues. For many years, Crist did so and was considered a conservative in good standing.

Over the past few election cycles, party activists moved the Republican Party further to the right and became less tolerant. Candidates that didn’t show complete party loyalty were made to feel unwelcome. This change in the party has purposely made it more pure but at the expense of alienating long-time party members who were chastised for being moderates or RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

Then-Republican Gov. Crist tried to move the party toward the center-right and to work in a bipartisan manner. While many conservatives decried his policies, legislative leaders continued to sing his praises as long as he was the governor. Were they, in fact, being opportunistic?

Crist, once a darling of the Republican Party, ran with its blessing for numerous positions: the Florida Senate, education commissioner, U.S. Senate, attorney general and governor. Was he an opportunist during those election attempts? No, he was a rising star of the party.

The lesson to be learned here: You can run for numerous offices as long as you don’t switch teams. Much like a professional athlete, you might be beloved on Team A but ridiculed and despised on Team B. Switching teams is the ultimate sin, even if you are no longer welcome on your current team.

But the electorate does not want hyper-partisanship and gridlock. Voters are registering “no party affiliation” in record numbers in Florida. Polls are showing a majority of voters want cooperation and compromise. Fewer voters are identifying as far right or far left on the political spectrum. Voters want their elected official to listen to them and to be willing to negotiate on their behalf.

The governor should be in a position of strength. He has the power of incumbency, a huge campaign checkbook and an improving economy. But by sticking to its current strategy, the party apparatus, once under Crist’s control, is signaling weakness. The party’s nasty attacks show worry. They are also playing into his hands.

Crist is a skilled political campaigner who sees the changing political tides. He threw his hat in the ring because the opportunity presented itself for someone to step in and change the tone of politics. Voters want to replace anger and hatred with “nice.”

And no one is going to out-nice Charlie.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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