Black voters crucial to Charlie Crist



In any race for governor, things seldom are as black and white as they appear.

The emerging battle between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his probable Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, may be a rare exception.

Scott can win a second term without support from African-American voters, while Crist probably has no chance of winning unless they turn out in large numbers.

It was more than symbolic when the Florida Legislative Black Caucus stood up Scott last week, refusing to meet with him for a talk its members said would be “fruitless.”

Tallahassee politicians rarely pass up free media exposure, so the snub seemed like an election-year tactic to embarrass the governor.

Black legislators are fed up with what they view as Scott’s inflexibility on a range of issues they listed in a letter to him: opposing the expansion of health care, “purging” voter rolls of noncitizens, restoring rights to ex-felons and increasing minority appointments.

Scott said through a spokeswoman that he was disappointed and that he believes in working together to find solutions. African-American lawmakers argue that his record proves otherwise.

Scott was the first Florida governor to name an African-American as lieutenant governor, but Jennifer Carroll’s luster had faded by the time she resigned last year from a largely ceremonial post.

Scott signed a law in 2011 that scaled back early-voting hours. That was reversed in part by the 2013 Legislature but remains a rallying cry for Democrats, who pushed a message of “voter suppression” to help drive up 2012 turnout.

Crist signed an executive order in 2008 to extend early voting, a move sought by Democrats that was viewed as helping Barack Obama win Florida because the lines were longest in urban centers with more black voters. Watch how Crist makes that action a central theme of his pitch to all Democrats.

Crist was comfortable campaigning among black voters when he was a Republican, and now he needs their support more than ever.

Crist led an effort to make it easier for inmates to get their civil rights restored after leaving prison. Scott led a 2011 effort that reversed the policy, and now most ex-inmates have to wait at least five years to apply for restoration.

Scott has appointed only one black state agency secretary; Crist appointed several.

Scott has appointed fewer black judges than Crist or former Gov. Jeb Bush. Crist, as a Republican, appointed James Perry, an African-American judge, to the Florida Supreme Court. In his new book, Crist says the decision generated 27,000 critical calls, faxes and emails to his office.

Will any of this make a difference on Election Day? Probably not, unless Crist galvanizes a high turnout of black voters. It’s hard to motivate voters of any color in off-year elections in Florida.

Black voters make up less than 14 percent of the state’s electorate, and they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.

Republicans will relentlessly remind swing voters and independents of Crist’s close alliance with Obama, while concentrating intensely on a larger pool of Hispanic voters, and the GOP has more resources to accomplish that.

Steve Bousquet is Tallahassee bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times.

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