Op-Ed

Crist needs to fire up black voters

FANCY FOOTWEAR: Gov. Rick Scott’s custom-made boots showing the five flags that have flown over Florida.
FANCY FOOTWEAR: Gov. Rick Scott’s custom-made boots showing the five flags that have flown over Florida.

Is Charlie Crist in danger of pulling an Alex Sink by narrowly losing to Rick Scott?

I was in Miami over the weekend, and had the chance to talk to a cross-section of people with an interest in the upcoming governor’s race, from clergy to politicians to operatives, academics and fellow journalists, and the verdict was both surprising and near-unanimous: Crist is losing, in no small part because he’s losing the attention of the black community.

Not that these voters would choose Rick Scott, who after all is the guy who ran for governor specifically to thwart President Obama’s healthcare law; and who touted, then ignored, then discarded his African-American lieutenant governor, while eviscerating funding Florida’s historically black colleges and minority business development, which were Jennifer Carroll’s unique selling propositions to black leaders during the 2010 campaign.

Crist is holding so many aces in his hand with black voters it’s hard to believe he’s in trouble.

He is the guy who in 2008, though a Republican governor at the time, expanded early voting hours to ease the excruciatingly long lines, only to see Scott revert to the Jeb Bush-era system, producing even longer wait times in 2012.

Scott reversed Crist’s reforms to the post-bellum system for restoring voting rights for felons who have served their sentences, disproportionately harming African Americans who are disproportionately punished by the drug laws, and he launched a voter purge with echoes of Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris circa the infamous 2000 election.

Scott is also the guy who, amid ongoing outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin appointed a Jacksonville special prosecutor many African Americans believe mishandled the case; along with a Carroll-led task force that accomplished exactly nothing.

After a three-day sit-in last July, he belatedly agreed to meet with the Dream Defenders — the young activists seeking to change Florida's unchangeable Stand Your Ground law — only to show up sporting a pair of custom-made cowboy boots emblazoned with five flags that have flown over Florida, including the Confederate flag, musing to an incredulous Philip Agnew, the group’s leader (who happens to be African American) about the importance of the flags. This, after tweeting a picture of the boots from the official gubernatorial account in April, only to delete the tweet later.

Still, none of that is enough to guarantee that Crist, who has predicated his campaign on re-creating his famous Obama hug at every possible rhetorical juncture, will inspire enough black voter turnout on Nov. 4 to defeat Governor Rebel Boots, and the tens of millions of dollars he and the Republican Party of Florida and friendly right-wing super-PACs will dump into the race.

Team Crist rolled out former President Bill Clinton in Miami last week, to work his “Explainer in Chief” magic on issues like the minimum wage and the state GOP’s refusal to take the Medicaid expansion funds. But while Clinton used to be Democrats’ best weapon for getting out the black vote, post Obama v. Hillary South Carolina primary 2008, it’s not clear — while all (or most) is forgiven — that’s his core utility today.

Crist will need (and I’m sure will have) the direct and vocal support of the real “first black president” to motivate black voters in November. So the current state of things can certainly change.

One key Crist supporter told me the metrics of the race aren’t as bad as they seem. Even the 120,000-vote deficit between Democratic and Republican voters in the August 26 primary was a marked improvement over the 400,000 vote gap in 2010 (and the 250,000 deficit in 2012, when Barack Obama won Florida and re-election).

Another made the valid point that having thrown the proverbial kitchen sink at Crist for months, with an avalanche of negative ads, all Scott’s campaign got was a meager lead, close to or within the margin of error in most statewide polling.

But the African Americans (all super voters) I talked to over the weekend told a story of a plain old lack of enthusiasm among people they know and talk to every day, with many shrugging off four more years of Rick Scott as nothing worse than the black community has seen before.

Will Crist get 97 percent of the black vote, as Sink did against the Scott-Carroll ticket? Absolutely. But in politics, it’s not the share that kills you, it's the volume. Crist will need black voters to feel a sense of urgency — not just bad Scott vibes and, worse, Scott boots — to regain the governorship.

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