Florida used to be known for oranges. Now it’s known for political theater, mostly of the tragic sort.
In 2000, we spent weeks watching election officials hold up punch-card chad and butterfly ballots to determine who won the White House. Before that, we lived through the 24-hour coverage of Elián González, the unaccompanied minor from Cuba who washed up on the shores of a swing state and became a political football. In 2008, presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, like so many New Yorkers before him, went there to die.
In 2014, Florida is giving us the spectacle of its 44th governor, Charlie Crist, trying to get his job back from the 45th, Rick Scott. Voters don’t seem to care much for either.
The grudge match has an unsettling “who’s-on-first?” quality. Crist, a longtime Republican, is running as a Democrat. That’s in keeping with his enigmatic, shape-shifting, too-tan-even-for-the-Sunshine-State persona.
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When it looked as if he would lose his bid for re-election as governor in 2010, Crist dropped out of the race and decided to run for an open U.S. Senate seat instead. When it looked as if he would lose that nomination to tea party favorite Marco Rubio, he became an independent. He lost anyway. He switched parties again in 2012, and is now running as the ersatz Democratic former Republican governor.
Crist’s best quality is how pleasant he is. He comes for drinks, stays for supper and doesn’t leave until he’s sprinkled Crist-dust all around. In office, he was the kind of Republican Democrats could tolerate, even though he followed much of the Republican playbook: He was for capital punishment, gun rights, and against abortion and same-sex marriage.
But he wasn’t Ted Cruz, either. Crist recognized that Florida used to be paradise and tried to preserve it by buying land from the polluting sugar growers and imposing strict air quality standards. While he was governor, the state’s K-12 schools rose to become seventh-best in the United States, according to Education Week. He also made it easier for convicted felons to regain their civil rights.
What stopped him in his political tracks was President Barack Obama.
A colder guy than Crist might have been able to take Obama’s stimulus funds in 2009 and simultaneously refuse to shake the Democrat’s hand. But Crist got entangled in one of Obama’s drive-by man-hugs, and that’s what led him to his current political incarnation. So now he’s pro-gay marriage, pro-choice and pro-sensible gun regulation.
Scott has consistency going for him. He came into office with the distinction of having been chief executive officer of Columbia/HCA Healthcare when the company racked up the largest Medicare and Medicaid fraud settlement in history. You might think Florida’s mighty senior-citizen bloc would resent a record that includes such disregard for some of their favorite federal programs, but Scott was able to get himself elected in 2010 after spending $70 million on ads that made him out to be the greatest businessman since Lee Iacocca and the biggest Obama critic anywhere.
Scott doesn’t have the natural touch, and his efforts to make himself seem more cuddly have sometimes backfired. For example, on the campaign trail in 2010, he made a big deal about adopting a rescue dog.
Turns out, he got rid of the Labrador retriever — named Reagan — only months after the election. This year, he has the added burden of defending a record that includes cuts to education spending, a decline in the state’s K-12 performance, and a failure to make good on promises to create jobs.
His most controversial decision was his rejection of more than $2 billion in federal funds for an already approved high-speed railroad between Tampa and Orlando. Instead, he burdened Floridians with new “first class” and “coach” toll lanes on state highways, costing drivers $3 billion.
If Crist suffers from being too willing to change his colors, Scott is too dazzled by his own business acumen, which may explain his love for privatizing things, including prisons.
These two badly damaged candidates provide further proof that a shift of the earth in 2000 flung all loose items to Florida. Scott has unleashed a barrage of negative ads. Crist is hanging on, and the two are about even in the polls. Scott, nicknamed Voldemort for his bald head and trouble connecting with voters, is going to have to make a positive case for himself.
That may be a tall order for both candidates.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.
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