It was the most bizarre beginning to a gubernatorial debate Florida had ever seen: With TV cameras rolling, Gov. Rick Scott didn’t take the stage because his rival Charlie Crist had a fan.
While two empty podiums stood on the stage at Broward College, one of the debate moderators, CBS4 anchor Eliott Rodriguez, told the audience that Scott wouldn’t be participating.
“The rules of the debate that I was shown by the Scott campaign say that there should be no fan. Somehow there is a fan there. And for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, I am being told that Gov. Scott will not join us for this debate.”
Rosemary Goudreau, a debate moderator and Sun-Sentinel editorial page editor, asked: “Gov. Crist, do the rules of the debate say that there should be no fan?”
Crist: “Not that I’m aware of.”
About seven minutes after the debate started, Scott took the stage.
We won’t put Crist’s statement on the Truth-O-Meter, since we can’t really say what he personally knew about the debate rules. But we did want to know the answer to Goudreau’s question: Did the rules of the debate say there should be no fan?
The fan agreement
Planning for the debate started in July when the debate hosts sent the campaigns information about stage layout with no specific mention of the word ‘fan’:
“Candidates will be fitted with lavaliere microphones and will stand at podiums. Candidates may not bring visual aids, notes, or electronic devices to the debate, but will be provided with a pad and pen to take notes during the debate.
Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor and a close Crist adviser, handled debate details for the Crist campaign. Gelber talked with debate organizers about the issue of the fan at least a couple of weeks before the debate.
“We had numerous discussions, and at all times they knew I objected to any rule excluding a fan,” Gelber said, noting it was particularly important because the Crist campaign knew the venue had been remodeled and was worried about the air conditioning.
The debate’s organizers — Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association — sent the campaigns separate letters dated Oct. 6 containing the debate rules, which stated:
“Candidates may not bring electronic devices (including fans), visual aids or notes to the debate, but will be provided with a pad and pen.”
Scott campaign manager Melissa Sellers signed the agreement on Oct. 9, the Thursday before the debate. Gelber, however, did not sign it that day, saying he wanted to see how a Friday night event at the venue with CNN’s Candy Crowley went.
On Monday, Gelber spoke with Dean Ridings, president of the Florida Press Association, who was the debate sponsors’ point person to Crist’s campaign. (Wendy Walker, president of Leadership Florida, was the point person to the Scott campaign.)
Gelber told Ridings that the Crist campaign wasn’t sure that the venue, Broward College’s Bailey Hall, would be cool enough. Ridings told PolitiFact Florida that the air conditioning hadn’t been set low enough on Friday, but he told Gelber the venue should be able to make it cooler for the Wednesday night debate.
On Monday night, Gelber sent back the debate agreement adding a handwritten asterisk about abiding by the debate format: “with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”
So by Monday night, there were two separate signed agreements: one by the Scott campaign that excluded fans and one by the Crist campaign that had a handwritten addition allowing the fan. There was no follow-up, either written or in conversation, about who would get to decide if a fan was necessary.
The Scott campaign didn’t see Gelber’s version at the time, said Walker.
Meanwhile, the debate hosts had what they thought was a far bigger problem on their hands: Adrian Wyllie, the Libertarian candidate, had filed a legal challenge trying to get added as a debate participant.
“All of us were all extremely focused on the Wyllie lawsuit Monday night when we received the response (from Gelber), and all day Tuesday,” Ridings said. “And frankly, calling our legal team to discuss the fan issue at that point seems pretty trivial from my perspective.”
(Wyllie would lose his fight Tuesday night.) Ridings did ask the TV station holding the debate to make sure there were fans there so they could be used if needed.
A press release by the debate hosts provides a chronology of what blew up Wednesday evening:
“At 6 p.m. Wednesday night, the temperature was checked on the stage under the lights, and was determined to be 67 degrees. Ridings then informed the Crist Campaign that there was no temperature issue, and no fan would be needed, or permitted. At 6:20 p.m., the temperature was checked again, and was at 66 degrees, again, under the lights on the stage by the podium. Between 6 and 6:20 p.m., someone from the Crist campaign placed a fan under Charlie Crist’s podium, and they were again told that no fans would be permitted.”
Ridings said that the Scott campaign knew the fan was on stage around 6 p.m. when he informed the Scott campaign along with Walker.
Crist arrived at the stage several minutes before the debate to get his microphone set and then later went to wait in the wings of the stage. Meanwhile, Scott was not on stage and was in an RV outside the building. (A separate RV was set up for both candidates.)
The debate began -- without either candidate on stage. After about a minute, Crist walked out and joined the debate. Scott joined a few minutes later, leading Rodriguez to say “Ladies and gentlemen, that has to be the most unique beginning to any debate. Not only in Florida, but I think in the country.”
At the end of the debate, one of the moderators, Rodriguez, asked both candidates a question about the fan:
Rodriguez: “Gov. Crist … why did you insist on bringing a fan here when your campaign knew this would be a contentious issue?”
Crist: “Why not? You know, is there anything wrong with being comfortable? I don’t think there is. Having compassion with other people. We did fine.”
Rodriguez: “And Gov. Scott, why the delay coming out over a fan?”
Gov. Scott: “I waited till we figured out if he’s going to show up. He said he wasn’t going to come to the debate. So why come out until he’s ready?”
After the debate, the Scott campaign denied that Scott refused to come out because of the fan.
“So, let’s get one thing clear: Rick Scott never refused to take the stage and debate,” Sellers wrote. “In fact, our campaign was not notified Charlie had even taken the stage because the last we heard, Crist was in an ‘emergency meeting’ with debate organizers pleading for his precious fan.”
On Thursday morning, we asked Ridings if he believed that Crist violated the agreement: “Yes. We told them, I personally said, there is not to be a fan, no need to have a fan.”
This is not the first time that Crist faced a dust-up over his use of the fan, which he often uses when he speaks. (The Tampa Bay Times has called the fan Crist’s “security blanket.“)
There were behind the scenes negotiations for Crist to use a fan at the first debate, held at Telemundo Oct. 10.
“Early on, about a month ago, we made a decision to allow the fan and made both sides aware of that,” said Maria Christina Barros of Telemundo. “We showed it to the Scott campaign during a walkthrough the day before the debate and they decided they were okay with it.There were various conversations about the fan up to that point and none after that.”
The rules stated that candidates could not bring electronic devices and even specified fans. The Scott campaign signed that agreement, while a lawyer for Crist wrote an addition to the agreement that it was “with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”
There was no agreement on who would decide if that fan was necessary or the criteria.
While the Crist campaign repeatedly asked for fans and was told they could have them if needed, the event’s organizers said the night of the debate that a fan wasn’t necessary. The Crist campaign put the fan out anyway.
Amy Sherman can be reached at asherman@MiamiHerald.com