Charlie Crist primed for comeback campaign

Former governor files with state elections office to run in 2014


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Charlie Crist's pitch for a return to the governor's office has a little of something for everyone. It's a mix of contrition, outrage and pride tempered by humility as he launches his second bid for the office -- this time as a Democrat.

While he's scheduled a "major announcement" for Monday morning in his hometown of St. Petersburg, what may be the worst-kept secret in Florida politics was confirmed Friday when Crist filed as a candidate with the Florida Secretary of State. [Monday's announcement will be carried live on News4Jax.com.]

The consummate politician is banking on in his attempt to capture the hearts -- and votes -- of Floridians.

"Each voter should do what they feel in their heart. Men, women, gay, straight, black, white, young, old, it doesn't matter. They should vote for who they feel will fight for them the best, whoever it is," Crist said this week during a wide-ranging interview outside a downtown Starbucks not far from his waterfront condo in St. Petersburg.

The interview, an appearance last weekend at the Florida Democratic Party's annual conference in Orlando and Crist's history as what a Democratic consultant called one of the country's best retail politicians shine a light on what to expect in the year to come.

The longtime Republican and short-time independent before his conversion into a Democrat last year is parlaying his partisan passage into a play on voters' frustrations with government.

"There are a lot of Republicans out there who are very upset with Charlie Crist, so they are going to be fired up. There are a lot of Democrats who don't like Gov. Scott. They are going to be ready to go," University of North Florida political science professor Matt Corrigan said. "It's going to be a typical high-wire act in the state of Florida that's probably going to be one of the most watched races in the country."

The ever-cordial, exceedingly polite Crist -- who credits his parents and three sisters for instilling respect in him at an early age -- grows fiery when speaking of his successor, Gov. Rick Scott, and the Republican's policies.

"It breaks my heart" is the common refrain Crist uses when speaking of Scott's actions on education, the environment, health care and voting rights, among other issues.

"What breaks my heart is what I have seen over the past three years from the administration in Tallahassee," Crist told the LGBT caucus at the Democratic conference on Sunday before blasting Scott's treatment of public schools.

"You come in and your first act is to whack (education) $1.3 billion. And then follow that incredible act with a second go-round…where you whack higher ed $300 million. And then you have the gall to go to the education community and teachers…and say you know what I think I can give them $2,500 (salary increases) and that'll take care of it and they'll forget," Crist said. "I've got news for you buddy. Teachers are smart and they cannot be bought."

But Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry said Crist's agenda lacks any discussion of jobs and economy, the backbone of Scott's election in 2010 and his re-election campaign. Curry said Crist "was a complete failure" as governor.

"Right now education funding is at the highest level in the state's history," Curry said. "It's all negativity (by Crist).He's not offering a vision for the state of Florida."

During the next year, voters should expect to see Crist criticize Scott about issues such as the state's rejection of expanding Medicaid and about Lake Okeechobee discharges that are polluting the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Crist grew so animated about the Lake Okeechobee issue during the interview that he sketched a map of the river system on the back of a napkin. Scott blames the Obama administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the recent pollution problems, which are a huge issue in the Treasure Coast region and in Southwest Florida.

Crist also has already started hammering Scott for refusing $2.4 billion from the Obama administration, which Crist had accepted, for a high-speed rail project connecting Tampa to Orlando.

"Unbelievable. That could have created tens of thousands of jobs," Crist said. "Have you driven on I-4? I wonder if he has. He doesn't have to. He flies over it in his jet. How does he have a clue what we're feeling? It's hard to have empathy if you haven't suffered like that and been on I-4. I'm on it once a week, man."

Crist also raised questions about Scott's character, reviving attacks by former Attorney General Bill McCollum who lost to Scott in a bitter primary in 2010. Scott earned his fortune as the former CEO of Columbia/HCA, the health care giant which paid $1.7 billion in fines and settlements to resolve accusations of Medicare and Medicaid fraud after he left the company.

"I don't know much about him that isn't ethically challenged," Crist said of Scott. "It troubles me that the leader of our state is not acting like a good servant. Being a good person starts with honesty and integrity. The notion that we've elected an individual who was the head of a company that had to pay the largest fine for fraud at the time in the history of our country is just mind-boggling."

After Monday, Crist will be in a primary against former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, who has been in the governor's race for more than a year. Rich, a favorite of progressives, is having a difficult time raising money and has less than $100,000 in cash in her campaign account, which Crist may eclipse on his first official day on the trail. Some insiders are predicting that, if elected, Crist will reward Rich with a spot as secretary of the Department of Children and Families if she drops out of the race.

In the meantime, Crist is reaching out to shore up support from the Democratic base that helped President Obama turn Florida blue in 2008 and 2012.

In an appeal to gay Democrats this weekend, Crist tried to make amends for signing onto a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in Florida.

"Please forgive me for not getting where I am now sooner. But I'm there," he said.

Crist --- dubbed Florida's "first black governor" by a former state representative --- has had rock star status among some African-Americans, who make up about 27 percent of Democratic registered voters. He extended early voting during the 2008 election, which some credit with Obama's win in Florida. Crist also refused to play Florida's state song, "Old Folks at Home," at his gubernatorial inaugural celebration in 2007.

At Crist's behest, he and the Florida Cabinet created an "automatic" restoration of rights for convicted felons, ending a complicated and drawn-out process that kept convicted felons, many of whom are black, from being able to vote. Soon after taking office in 2011, Scott and the all-GOP Cabinet reversed that process and instead imposed a five-year wait before felons can apply to have their rights restored.

"It's horrific. Talk about mean, un-Christian, unforgiving. That's like heartless. That's a heartless policy," Crist said.

Crist said Scott and the Cabinet members --- Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam --- who unanimously supported the new policy "all gotta go."

"Who among them doesn't believe in forgiveness and second chances? We all make mistakes but my God can't you give them a second chance? They've paid their debt to society. If you've paid it, restore. Give them a second chance. Give them hope. Because otherwise you demoralize them for the rest of their lives. That's a sin. It's just not nice. It's not right," he said.

Scott has vowed to spend at least $25 million "defining" Crist, and reports this week said a Scott political committee will unleash as much as a $525,000 ad campaign against Crist on Monday, the day Crist makes his candidacy official.

Republican leaders are even boasting of a scorched-earth campaign attacking Crist for fleeing the GOP in 2010 and becoming an independent to avoid a U.S. Senate primary with Marco Rubio. Crist gave up the possibility of a second term as governor to run for the Senate.

Curry said Crist made a play for Washington when Florida's unemployment rate skyrocketed during the great recession.

"He bailed on the state when they needed him most, and now for some reason he feels he wants to be back in Florida when he abandoned us when we needed a governor most," Curry said. "He's not a serious person. He's not fit to govern. He's a campaigner. That's it. He's good-time Charlie."

The onetime "People's Governor" insists he hasn't changed and scoffs at accusations that he can't be trusted.

"Trusted to do what? To stay in the crazy club? Well I hope not," Crist said.

Crist emphasized that it is GOP leaders who appear out of touch with mainstream Americans, pointing to former Gov. Jeb Bush's critique of his own party.

"God does not want people to be anti-women, anti-minority, anti-immigration, anti-gay. Pretty soon the room's empty. And when you are that intolerant, at least the leadership of the party, trust me, I'm out of there. You can trust me. It's just not right," he said.