TALLAHASSEE -- Traveling on a yellow school bus, Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist toured the state last week to tell Floridians that public schools would fare better under his watch than that of Gov. Rick Scott.
Along the way, Crist battled the weather, competed with Scott supporters at several campaign stops and repeated his attacks on Scott’s education budgets.
“The notion that Rick Scott would get into office and cut education by $1.3 billion is unfathomable,” Crist told teachers and fellow Democrats at a park in Tampa, a message he trumpeted often on his three-day trip.
In neither Tampa, Tallahassee nor Miami did Crist unveil any specific education blueprint, aside from a promise to increase funding. His mission, however, was clear: Drum up media attention in the state’s top markets and remind voters of his commitment to public schools.
Education is the centerpiece of Crist’s bid for the governor’s mansion. His strategy for winning his old job back depends largely on his ability to get teachers and parents to the polls in November. “It’s indispensable,” Crist said of their support.
The statewide teachers union already endorsed Crist. But the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida says the other Democrat in the race, former state Sen. Nan Rich, has a stronger track record of supporting public education.
Although Crist and Rich face off in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary, Crist has all but ignored her as an opponent. He has refused her calls for a debate, focusing instead on Scott.
But Crist’s own record on education is long and complicated.
He was state education commissioner from 2000 to 2002, when Florida expanded its use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and launched its controversial school grading system.
While serving as Republican governor, Crist supported charter schools and vouchers. But he broke rank with GOP leaders in 2010, vetoing a plan to base a portion of teacher pay on student test scores.
The move made him a folk hero among educators and marked a turning point in his political career.
Crist — now a Democrat — says his views on education have evolved over the past decade because the policies themselves have changed.
The school grading system he once supported? “It’s a mess,” he said.
Charter schools? “I’m more skeptical of charter schools than I have been in the past. They seem to have become more of a profit-center scenario rather than a healthy choice [for students], and that’s how I feel about it.”
Even the school voucher program is in need of a comprehensive review, he said.
Crist conceded that he had cut the state education budget when the economy tanked in 2008. But he pointed out that he had accepted federal stimulus dollars to prevent teacher layoffs, despite it hurting him politically.
Scott, Crist noted, had initially proposed a $3.3 billion cut to education in 2011 — a plan he rolled out at a Tea Party rally.
State Sen. John Thrasher, speaking for the Scott campaign in Jacksonville, said Crist was ignoring important facts.
“He’s not leveling with the people of Florida,” said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “Gov. Scott and the Republican Legislature have put over $2 billion back into education.”
Last month, PolitiFact Florida found that, accounting for inflation, Crist’s per-pupil spending outpaced Scott’s every year.
Crist hit the road on the yellow school bus last week to make the point.
He was accompanied by his wife, Carole, his running mate, Annette Taddeo, and some of his closest advisors: former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, Democratic strategist Steve Schale, political consultant Kevin Cate and former state Sen. Dan Gelber.
There were news conferences in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami. Each event drew a few dozen schoolteachers and Democratic activists who greeted Crist like a rock star when he stepped off of the bus.
“He stood by us when he vetoed performance pay,” said veteran Miami-Dade educator Valencia Gabriel, who attended the stop in Miami. “We will stand by him.”
Scott supporters also showed up. In three different cities, Republican activists wore prison jumpsuits and oversized name tags with the names of jailed Crist supporters. In Orlando, their persistent chanting made it difficult to hear Crist’s remarks.
Surrogates for Scott’s reelection campaign were also waiting for him at almost every stop.
Before the kickoff in Tallahassee on Wednesday, Republican state Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Fort Walton Beach, said Crist had launched the education tour to shift the conversation away from the economy.
“He has got to start this bus tour and go around this state to talk to anything other than his jobs record because, of course, Florida lost hundreds of thousands of jobs under Gov. Crist and we’ve added hundreds of thousands of jobs under Gov. Scott,” Gaetz said.
The trip was not without hiccups. The school bus stalled during a torrential downpour outside of Tallahassee on Wednesday. A minor fender-bender in Orlando on Thursday led to a 90-minute delay. The last news conference on Friday had to be moved indoors after intense afternoon thunderstorms rolled through Miami.
Still, Crist relished being on the road and wasted no opportunity to talk to any and every potential voter.
He took pictures with volunteers in a Jacksonville wine store who were calling voters on his behalf. At a Race Trac gas station in Deltona, he convinced Arnoldo Alvarez to affix a Charlie Crist bumper sticker to the back of his silver sedan.
Even after the fender-bender, Crist hugged the woman who had clipped the school bus. The driver, Orlando business development manager Tina Pun, promised Crist she would vote for him.
“I love people,” Crist said. “It’s who I am.”