The Florida Council of 100, a politically astute group of top business leaders, abruptly blocked a speech Thursday by Charlie Crist scheduled shortly after an address by Gov. Rick Scott, the Democrat’s successor and likely opponent in November.
The Republican-leaning group had invited Crist weeks ago to address its spring meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, and offered 30 minutes of speaking time.
On Tuesday, it withdrew the invitation, but Crist showed up anyway and listened to Scott’s talk. He then called a press conference and basked in the free publicity.
“It’s silly, childish and, frankly, rude,” said Crist. “It’s galactically stupid.”
The council gave no explanation for silencing Crist, who as a former governor is a lifetime member of the council. Two council leaders, chief executive Susan Pareigis and chairman Steve Halverson, did not respond to phone and text messages and emails.
Crist said Halverson told him Wednesday, “I owe you an apology. I was involved in that,” and that the reason was “we didn’t want it to be political.”
Halverson, a Jacksonville construction executive, has personally given $3,000 to Scott’s reelection campaign and $25,000 more to Let’s Get to Work, Scott’s political committee.
The highly public snub of Crist by Florida’s corporate leadership played directly into his hands. He’s being vastly outspent by Scott in TV advertising and he’s running as a populist “people’s governor” who sides with individuals, not corporations that support Scott.
Ironically, Crist’s speech would have been largely ignored because Council of 100 events are off-limits to reporters.
The speech that Crist was not allowed to give was an all-out attack on Scott’s record and his integrity — “a bully with a $100 million checkbook,” according to prepared remarks released by his campaign.
“We have a governor who leads by embracing the ideological fringes, taking care of his friends, bullying his opponents, hiding from the public and press and running from tough issues,” Crist’s text said.
The speech also included policy ideas, such as a high-speed rail system, opening borders to Cuba and a program to encourage college students to get graduate degrees in science and technology if they stay in Florida.
Scott’s breakfast speech was a familiar recitation of job growth, lower unemployment, student learning gains and tax cuts. He made no mention of Crist, according to details released by the governor’s office, other than to repeat that the state is in far better shape now than when Crist left office.
“We’ve come a long way in the last 3 1/2 years,” Scott said, according to the text.
Afterward, a Scott aide distributed a flier to every table in the ballroom entitled “Why Charlie Crist Hates Your Business.” The council ordered the leaflets removed.
The Council of 100, created in the 1960s by Gov. Farris Bryant, calls itself nonpartisan, but many members are Republicans and Scott supporters.
Scott, who was promoting tourism figures at an event at Busch Gardens after his Council of 100 speech, said: “You’ll see a great change and a great difference between the two of us. Someone that talks a lot and someone that gets things done.”
Asked whether he, his office or his campaign had anything to do with Crist’s speech being canceled, Scott shook his head and said: “No.” He also said he was not aware Crist had been taken off the program.
A few council members voiced their opposition to the snub. And state Sen. Dwight Bullard, the leader of the legislative black caucus, and the state House Democrats’ leader, Perry Thurston, wrote the council a letter that accused it of bending to the “bullying of Governor Scott.” They suggested the council was an all-white conservative front group.
“In the year 2014, not one of your 31 officers or directors is an African-American. Your actions and your choices make it abundantly clear whom you seek to represent,” the two South Florida Democrats wrote.
It’s customary for the council to invite former governors to its meetings, but this is the first time the organization — and Florida — has had a governor’s race that pits an incumbent against his predecessor.
The Council of 100 Crist cancellation isn’t the first time that Scott critics have encountered turbulence over free speech.
In March, Florida State University professor Diane Roberts, an occasional Tampa Bay Times op-ed contributor and frequent Scott critic, was uninvited from speaking at the state-run Mission San Luis. A state worker, Jessica Kindrick, quit in protest and accused “Scott’s cronies” at the Secretary of State’s office of censorship. The office later reversed its decision and invited Roberts to speak.
Earlier this month, the Department of Environmental Protection removed from its website pictures taken by outdoor photographer John Moran, a critic of the agency and of Scott’s policies on Florida’s springs.
The Tallahassee Democrat obtained an agency email suggesting Moran’s photographs were specifically targeted for removal, but a DEP spokesperson said they were taken down to make way for a state park photo contest.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Reach Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@MiamiHerald.com. Reach Marc Caputo at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com