Charlie Crist may be the Democratic Party’s best hope to regaining the governor’s mansion after a 16-year drought, but those who know him well say that if he gets his former job back, the newly minted Democrat will govern much like the Republican he was four years ago.
“Charlie Crist is truly the same person he was before; he’s just in a different party,’’ said Brian Ballard, the longtime GOP fundraiser for Crist who is now backing Gov. Rick Scott. “By his nature, Charlie is someone who wants to find consensus and, for that reason, will govern as he did before — as a moderate.”
If voters give Crist a second term, he has promised to focus on restoring funding cuts to education, strengthening environmental protection, expanding affordable healthcare, encouraging solar energy and growing jobs from within the state. On other populist issues and pocketbook concerns, like taxes and insurance, he is expected to take a centrist approach.
But as head of a party that has won only six of the last 22 statewide elections, Crist could serve an equally potent role: Democratic Party mender-in-chief.
“He’ll promote people in the administration to start a bench and he’ll raise money,” said Paula Dockery, a former Republican state senator from Lakeland and Crist supporter.
Crist, 58, is attempting a political do-over unmatched in Florida political history. Elected in 2006 as a Republican governor, he did not seek reelection in 2010 but ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent, complaining of the GOP’s lurch to the right.
In 2012, Crist completed his political transformation and became a Democrat. He wrote a political biography about his party defection in 2013, and this year returned to the campaign circuit on a nonapologetic appeal for his old job.
“What we have here in Florida today isn’t working,” Crist said in launching his campaign a year ago. “The voice of the people has been silenced by the financial bullies and the special interests.”
While Crist’s political identity may have undergone a conversion, opponents say it underscores his lack of “core values.” In the final week of the campaign, Republicans are continuing the drumbeat of negative ads against Crist with a barrage of television ads that accuse him of being a “slick politician” but “lousy governor.”
Others counter, however, that while Crist changed his party ID, his approach to governing will likely be the same.
“He holds the veto pen and, as an experienced legislator and former governor, he knows how to work within the boundaries to get things done,’’ Dockery said. That means engaging in pragmatic politics to bring reluctant legislators along, she said.
“If Crist is elected, he’ll do some atmospherics for his supporters in the early going, and then he will march toward the center — it’s his nature,’’ said John “Mac” Stipanovich, a veteran Republican consultant.
Crist promises to shift policy in three high-profile areas: education, energy and healthcare.
Crist is calling for changes to the charter school laws, a reduction in standardized testing and a halt to the expansion of vouchers.
Crist could find common ground with Republican legislators on school testing and energy. There is a growing consensus among Republicans that students are being over-tested and the negative attention given to Duke Energy because of its nuclear power fees have helped to shift the opinions of many Republicans in the Legislature away from the current policies.
But on the issue of healthcare and minimum wage, a newly elected Crist could clash with the more conservative House.
Crist has already said that if the Legislature refuses to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income Floridians under the Affordable Care Act or raise the minimum wage, he will do it by executive order.
“We have a legislative process and, whoever the governor is, should participate in that process,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, the presumed incoming Senate president. “Some of the things Charlie has implied are going to be a significant challenge.”
With a Democrat as governor, the GOP-led Legislature’s power to override a veto becomes more relevant than ever.
One prospect, considered unlikely by most analysts, is that Republicans in both chambers regain their super-majorities to greatly diminish the bargaining power and influence of a Crist governorship.
Gardiner counters that the Florida Senate is traditionally more independent-minded than the House and “reaching a magic number” to override a veto “isn’t necessarily going to change the deck chairs,” he said.
Incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he and other House leaders will have their own agenda but are also open to working with Crist if he is elected.
“Certainly, there are things that we could find common ground on,” Crisafulli said.
FORMER GOP COLLEAGUES
Crist, however, says he would work with, not confront, the GOP-led Legislature.
“You have the opportunity to look people in the eye and, if it’s post-election and we’ve won, I’ll say ‘let’s put politics behind us,’” Crist said last week.
Ballard acknowledges bitter feelings linger among many Republicans who still view Crist as a traitor.
“There’s going to be hard feelings at first, but Charlie is very good — amongst the best — at getting people over that,” Ballard said.
Crist will be in a position to reverse decisions made by Scott. He will likely need to lease or buy a jet to get around the state to replace Scott’s personal jet. He may also rescind hundreds of lame-duck appointments made by Scott and make new appointments to critical jobs. Among them: replace four Supreme Court justices who will face mandatory retirement; name 15 members to the 2017 Constitutional Revision Commission, the powerful group that can place constitutional amendments directly on the 2018 ballot; replace members of the Public Service Commission; and name new people to the state’s powerful water management districts.
Meanwhile, once the election is over, the conversation will shift to who is going to lead the governor’s agencies, and Crist’s campaign team has begun planning for a transition, as most candidates do — although they won’t discuss it on the record.
Former Miami state Sen. Dan Gelber, a key adviser to Crist throughout the campaign, is expected to be a key leader in that effort and Crist is expected to tap both Democrats and Republicans to head major agencies, as he did in his first term.
If Crist is governor in 2016, he will lead Florida as it again becomes a focal point in the presidential elections. Democratic political consultant Steve Vancore believes the fundraising and political heft of the governor will produce tangible dividends for the expected Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
“If there’s a Democrat in the mansion, you give Hillary a point or a point and a half advantage,’’ he said. “And because it’s Florida, that is probably the most important point and a half in the country.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas.
Herald/Times staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.