Michael Putney: Governor’s race needs ‘Big Idea’

ho / ho


Some people never change and never disappoint. Take Charlie Crist. He showed up for an interview with me the other day with his fan.

No, not a starry-eyed, fawning supporter, although his traveling aide came close. I’m talking about an electric fan, which Charlie likes to place at his feet so that he can stay cool during TV interviews. “Never let ’em see you sweat” is his motto.

If Ronald Reagan promulgated an 11th commandment — never speak ill of another Republican — Charlie has promulgated a bipartisan 12th: Stay cool, even when you’re on the hot seat.

Charlie never loses his cool, even when confronted with troubling facts that would send a lesser mortal into a flop sweat.

Done a 180 on virtually every major issue? No problem for Charlie nor, he says, for voters. That was then, this is now. “Just look at what I did,” Charlie told me. “Look at my record.”

True enough, he extended early voting hours in 2008 even though it was likely to help Democrats and hurt the GOP (he was then a Republican). He championed the restoration of civil rights for nonviolent felons. He tried to buy out Big Sugar to save the Everglades. He vetoed a bill that would have created an untested merit-pay system for teachers. Put a star by his name for all of that.

But put out a dunce cap for being the poster boy for political expediency. It’s hard to know what Charlie truly believes in, except himself. Throughout his political career — he’s got a law degree but really has never done anything but politics — he has always been looking for his next opportunity, the next highest office. He would probably be governor right now if he hadn’t set his sights on the U.S. Senate.

And yet despite all that, it’s hard not to like the guy. I admit it, I like him. Admire his personal touch even when there’s nothing to be gained.

An example: When he was governor, photographer Bob Palumbo and I stopped by his office in the Capitol one day without an appointment and were quickly ushered in for an interview. Afterwards, Bob mentioned that it was his father’s 85th birthday and Charlie said, without hesitation, “Let’s call him up and wish him happy birthday.” A minute later Charlie was on the phone to Bob’s father in Lake Worth and in no time the two were having a grand old time. Every time thereafter that Charlie saw Bob he would ask after his father — by name.

It’s hard to imagine Rick Scott doing anything like that. He’s congenial and pleasant in private, but cool and somewhat aloof in public.

He’s lately taken to going around the room when he arrives at events, murmuring hellos and shaking hands with all present on stage or beyond, even if that takes several minutes. Scott doesn’t have much to say to them, but it’s humanizing. That’s why Scott continues to show photos of his grandchildren once he reaches the podium, as if to say: I have human spawn, I really am like you.

That’s also why he continues to repeat, ad nauseam, his story about growing up in public housing in Kansas City where his father (actually stepfather it turns out) was often laid off as a trucker. But that was half a century ago, and the Scotts now live in a multimillion dollar home in Naples when they’re not at the governor’s mansion. A regular Joe he’s not. Blue collar he’s not either and, to his credit, he’s given up wearing those dopey open-collar denim shirts with “Gov. Rick Scott” embroidered on them.

Assuming Crist beats Nan Rich for the Democratic nomination, the outlines of the Crist vs. Scott race are already clear. It will be nasty, brutish and long. By the time we reach Election Day in November of next year we’ll be sick and tired of both these guys. We will simply want it to be over. The political atmosphere by then may be permanently poisoned for the winner.

But there is an alternative. One these candidates could run as the champion of a really Big Idea rather than exchanging mindless invective with his opponent. A Big Idea campaign could produce a real winner for Florida.

Bob Graham ran for re-election on big themes of protecting the environment and improving Florida’s schools. Those were also Jeb Bush’s top priorities throughout his eight years in Tallahassee. Lawton Chiles made early childhood development his singular goal in his second term. Rick Scott has made jobs his top priority to the exclusion of almost anything else. He’s the governor of business and that’s about it.

Scott and Crist could easily base the coming campaign on a Big Idea and win with it. The choices are legion. For example, curbing youth crime, which is at epidemic levels? Or focusing on higher education and turning Florida’s state universities into a blue-ribbon system as California did decades ago. Or making Florida the new Silicon Valley for the Southeast United States and all of Latin America. Or safeguarding the Everglades once and for all. Or beginning a high-speed rail system linking the state’s major metro areas.

We could have a governor’s race about such big, worthy ideas, not petty personal attacks. We could, but I don’t think we will.

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald

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