Florida Politics

Charlie Crist’s party-switch is not unusual in Fla. politics

FILE--Florida Gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, speaks to the Miami Herald editorial board Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014.
FILE--Florida Gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, speaks to the Miami Herald editorial board Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Candidates in Florida have been switching parties for decades, so Charlie Crist’s unprecedented bid to be the state’s first governor to serve as a Republican and as a Democrat may not be as outlandish as it seems.

But study a sampling of those who made the switch — and then won — and it’s clear that Crist’s candidacy really is unlike any other, for a host of reasons.

Most Florida politicians who switched parties moved the other way and were riding the crest of a Republican wave in which the GOP identified more with Reagan than Lincoln, making it possible for a conservative Southerner to run and win as a Republican. They were part of a larger national trend that eventually sorted Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right on issues across the board. Seen in that light, Crist’s bid truly is exceptional and unprecedented. And lonely.

Among those who switched and then won are a former U.S. senator, two governors, two attorneys general, a Supreme Court justice, a U.S. attorney, at least three members of Congress, three Senate presidents and a legion of legislators, not to mention sheriffs, county commissioners and school board members who have changed their stripes.

Crist is the first to try to pull it off as a former Republican governor. Every other high official who switched and won started as a Democrat but won in the end as a Republican.

Dozens of conservative Florida Democrats became Republicans during the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when Ronald Reagan, himself a former Democrat, was president and a lot of “Dixiecrats” decided the national Democratic Party had drifted too far to the left. As a result, the state Republican Party became much more influential in North Florida and beefed up its majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

“[Reagan] built the Republican Party of Florida,” said Charles Whitehead, who was state Democratic Party chairman in the 1980s. “From Pensacola to Jacksonville, that’s where he really killed us.”

Whitehead died in February. His son-in-law, Screven Watson, a political strategist and former executive director of the Democratic Party, said, “Charles used to tell me, ‘You could see the tide coming.’ People saw it and got out in front of it.”

Watson added that the Democratic presidential candidacies of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 all but sealed the party’s fate in North Florida.

“We weren’t giving Dixiecrats great choices at the national level,” Watson said. “It wasn’t until Bill Clinton that we did, and look what happened: He won.”

Now Clinton is trying to help Crist close the deal in Florida. But even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in Florida by nearly 500,000, it won’t be easy because Crist is fighting the historical tide as a Republican-turned-Democrat in a purple state.

In the time since the major shifts in the last decades of the 20th century, party-switching has become far less common, and with the Legislature dominated by Republicans, there has been little incentive to leave the party in the last generation.

Like Crist, Bob Martinez is a Tampa Bay figure who became governor. He was a Democrat and president of a teachers union before he became a Republican. But he never held elective office as a Democrat.

The syndicated columnist George F. Will, writing about Martinez’s evolution in a 1986 column, noted that he had been a Democrat who supported Jimmy Carter in 1980, became a Republican in 1983, addressed the Republican National Convention in 1984 and became Florida’s second Republican governor since Reconstruction in 1986.

“The idea of uprooting oneself does not shock Floridians,” Will wrote in words Crist might find reassuring. “Each year, about 330,000 uproot themselves from elsewhere to become permanent residents of Florida. That is the equivalent of a new Tampa each year.”

At the state Capitol in Tallahassee, the House clerk’s office keeps a list of members who have switched parties while in office, dating to 1966.

The list runs on four full pages and includes Malcolm Beard, a former Hillsborough County sheriff and senator; Dexter Lehtinen, a Miami lawmaker who later became a U.S. attorney; Charles Canady, who served in Congress and is now a state Supreme Court justice; W.D. Childers, a former Senate president from Pensacola; and the late George Kirkpatrick, remembered as a tenacious defender of all things related to the University of Florida.

The first name on that list of House party-switchers is Tom Slade, a former Democrat who became a Republican and helped shape the state GOP into the dominant force it is today.

“It was called a suicide mission when I did it,” recalled Slade, who switched in the early 1960s because he was fed up with Democratic dominance of city hall in Jacksonville and what he saw as deep-seated municipal corruption.

“I decided the only competition we’ve got available to us is another political party,” Slade said with a laugh. “Damn if it didn’t work.”

Information for this report comes from Tampa Bay Times research, the Florida House of Representatives, the Almanac of American Politics (1992 and 1998), The Associated Press, the Ledger (of Lakeland), the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, the Pensacola News-Journal and the South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

Florida’s notable party-switchers

Pam Bondi: Florida’s first female attorney general, a Republican, was a Democrat from 1984 to 2000, when Democrats controlled power in Tampa. Her late father, Dr. Joseph Bondi, a former mayor of Temple Terrace, was a Democrat until 2004. As an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough, Pam Bondi changed parties soon after her boss, Democrat Harry Lee Coe III, took his own life. “I have always been conservative,” Bondi said during the 2010 campaign when it emerged she had once been a Democrat.

Charles Canady: His father was a right-hand man to Lawton Chiles, a Florida Democratic icon who served three terms as a U.S. senator and two as governor (the last Democrat to hold the office). As a state lawmaker, the son ditched the Democratic Party in 1989, calling it too liberal, and his political fortunes soon blossomed. In 1992, Canady won a Polk County seat in Congress that was held by Andy Ireland, also a party-switcher. Hard-working and studious, Canady heeded his self-imposed term limit of eight years and became the top lawyer to Gov. Jeb Bush, who made Canady an appellate judge. Gov. Charlie Crist rewarded Canady with a seat on the Supreme Court in 2008, an appointment that would have been unthinkable had Canady remained a “D.”

Claude Kirk: Florida’s most flamboyant governor had been a Democrat until 1960, when, as an insurance executive, he sided with Richard Nixon, and in 1966 he became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction as a divided Democratic Party imploded. Two decades later, Kirk became a Democrat, ran for U.S. Senate in 1988 and finished a distant fifth in a six-candidate primary field. Then he came full circle, switched back to the Republican Party, ran for education commissioner in 1990 and lost to Tampa Democrat Betty Castor. Kirk died in 2011.

Connie Mack III: He was an unlikely soldier to lead the Reagan Revolution in Florida. The namesake grandson of the baseball legend ran the first Democratic club in Lee County and was a Democrat until 1979, but as a banker in Fort Myers with bigger ambitions, he grew weary of government regulation and became a Republican. Three years later, he won a seat in Congress and in a statewide brawl in 1988, he narrowly won a U.S. Senate seat by doing what Republicans do so well: calling out Democratic opponent Buddy MacKay for being “too liberal.”

Bob Martinez: Not only was he a Democrat, but he ran a teachers union in Hillsborough during an illegal strike — hardly an ideal resume for any Republican. But Martinez doggedly pursued the nonpartisan office of Tampa mayor in 1979 and guided its expansion with a pro-growth, fiscally conservative outlook. Coaxed by another former Democrat, President Reagan, he became a Republican in 1983, which set up his winning race for governor in 1986. In what would prove to be a classic understatement, he said in 1983: “I do think the state is becoming more conservative and moving to the Republicans.”