To President Barack Obama’s reelection team, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s high-profile speaking role at the Democratic National Convention is a coup. But to many longtime Florida Democrats, it’s revolting.
"If he gets up to speak at the convention, it’ll be a good time to go to the bathroom," said Palm Beach County’s tax collector, Anne Gannon, a Florida Democratic delegate.
“He’s a born-again Democrat,” Gannon said. “He’s a nice man, but he doesn’t have a clue about his value system.’
Crist is widely expected to run for governor again in two years as a Democrat. He left the Republican Party in 2010, saying it had become too “extreme.”
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His conversion to an independent came only after he was all but assured a GOP-primary loss to fellow Republican Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race. Crist went on to lose the general election to Rubio in a three-way Senate race involving former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, of Miami, who wouldn’t comment directly about Crist’s role at the DNC.
"I’m not in charge," he said when he ran into a reporter at the convention. "I’m going to go get my credentials (for the convention)."
But Meek, an African-American who is popular with the teachers unions as well, left open the possibility of a rematch with Crist. When asked if he’d run for governor against Crist, he smiled and repeated: "I’m going to get my credentials."
Crist, who could not be reached for comment, has slowly tilted toward the Democratic Party ever since, endorsing Sen. Bill Nelson and then Obama just before the Republican National Convention kicked off the Sunday before last. He was awarded a DNC speaking slot, perhaps on Thursday night when Obama is nominated.
The speaking role of a not-quite-Democrat at the Democrats’ convention speaks volumes about the state of the party.
Except for national party chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, no other Florida official will play a high-profile convention role. Nelson isn’t scheduled to speak. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 5 percentage points in Florida yet only hold one state-wide elected office, Nelson’s, and comprise less than a third of the Legislature.
As a must-win state for Republicans that Obama won in 2008, Florida is nonetheless playing a much-downsized role at the Democrats’ convention relative to its outsized importance.
Republicans have reveled in Crist’s flip-flops, disseminating Tweets from the time Crist was still a Republican who bashed Obama’s healthcare plan.
Democrats aren’t so happy to point out the inconsistencies, but they’re noting them nonetheless in a bipartisan act of marveling at Crist’s appetite for political reinvention. They expect Crist, a trial lawyer at the Morgan & Morgan firm, to become a Democrat at an opportune moment and then run for governor.
“Less than two years ago, he was against the Affordable Care Act and he thought Sarah Palin was an excellent choice for vice president. How does he explain that?” said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who’s running for governor in 2014.
For Rich, the Democratic Party leader in the Florida Senate, the elevation of Crist by national Democrats is a particularly unappealing proposition. It gives him national and statewide exposure while paying short shrift to Democrats who fought for the party’s ideals when it wasn’t convenient.
“This is a decision of the DNC,” Rich said. “I would have made a different decision.”
So would Alex Sink, the former state Chief Financial Officer and candidate for governor in 2010. She might run again.
“You’ll have to ask the Obama people what they’re thinking,” she said. “Is this an epiphany by Charlie Crist or is this just to advance a political career?”
Orlando Rep. Scott Randolph, one of the Legislature’s more liberal and trenchant members, said he understood the tradeoff in embracing Crist — at least at the convention. Crist gets exposure, and Democrats use him as a counter to former Alabama Democratic U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, a former Obama supporter who was featured at the Republican National Convention.
“This is politics,” Randolph said. “It’s about who uses who.”
But it’s unclear how much help Crist can be. A new Florida voter survey from Public Policy Polling found that, after Crist’s endorsement of Obama, he became less popular and now 36 percent have a positive view of Crist while 44 percent have a negative opinion overall.
"Democrats still appear to be somewhat skeptical of him as well though 44 percent rate him positively to 33 percent with a negative opinion," pollster Tom Jensen said in a statement.
The Democratic candidate who ran and lost against Crist for governor in 2006, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, said Florida Democrats “know who Charlie Crist is.” He said he understands the appeal of Crist in the short-term and that the 2014 governor’s race is a long way off.
“Outside of Florida, at a national level, Gov. Crist helps send the message that the Republican Party has lurched too far to the right,” he said. “Here in Florida, it’s a different story.”
To capture the Democratic Party nomination six years ago, Davis beat former state Sen. Rod Smith, who openly mocked Crist as a showboating lightweight. Now Smith is the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, and he wasn’t even told Crist would speak.
“If he wants to join our church, he’ll be welcome in the congregation,” Smith said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be preacher. He might not even be the choir director he’ll have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.”
As someone who has been on the ballot in five of the last seven statewide elections, Crist does have a good measure of statewide name identification. He has also built up goodwill among teachers’ unions for vetoing a so-called “teacher tenure” bill in 2010.
And African American voters are particularly fond of Crist for making civil rights a major issue when he was attorney general, for pushing for fewer restrictions on former felons who want to vote and for keeping the polls open extra hours in 2008, which allowed more black voters to cast ballots and help elect Obama.
The following year, Crist bucked the Republican party’s talking points and literally embraced Obama onstage at a Fort Myers event touting the president’s $787 billion stimulus plan.
Crist was the only Republican governor to talk up the stimulus, though all GOP governors and Legislatures ultimately took most of the federal money.
“He has a lot of goodwill in the community in the African-American community,” said Tony Hill, a former state senator and African-American activist.
Tampa state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a leader in the black caucus, rolled her eyes when asked about Crist.
“I’m not in charge,” Joyner said. “But the grassroots know Charlie and they love him.”
State Rep. Perry Thurston, the leader of House Democrats who’s also active in the black caucus, acknowledged there’s some bitterness among Democrats.
“We’ve got a big tent,” Thurston said. “And this is going to strain but show the resilience of that big tent.”
Rep. Dwight Bullard of Miami agreed. He said the Obama campaign and the Democratic convention could have done more to soothe nerves among Florida Democrats upset with the high-profile role afforded to Crist.
“I wouldn’t call it a bad idea so much as a poorly vetted idea,” Bullard said. “They should have at least talked to the Florida Democratic Party.”