April 7, 2008
‘HE’S NO JEB BUSH’
Charlie Crist — ambiguous conservative, potential vice president
JOHN J. MILLER
When the Florida legislature finished its spring session last year, Republican governor Charlie Crist hailed lawmakers for what he considered their most important accomplishment: “You put the nail in the coffin this afternoon on the industry that was hurting our people.”
He was talking about the insurance industry, which seems to have chosen an odd way to hurt Floridians. It spent more than $30 billion to meet its policy obligations and help rebuild the Sunshine State, in the wake of seven big hurricanes that smashed the state’s shores in 2004 and 2005.
Anybody who has dealt with claims adjusters knows they can be unpleasant. Crist, however, didn’t merely express frustration with insurance companies — he decided to give John Edwards a run for his money in the contest for the year’s most flamboyantly anti-business rhetoric. “I am amazed at their level of greed and I am amazed at the callous nature of their corporate decisions,” he told the St. Petersburg Times last summer.
Coming from a guy who’s normally smiling and upbeat, these were harsh words. Yet they’ve struck a populist chord and today, a little more than a year into his first term as Jeb Bush’s successor, Crist enjoys sky-high approval ratings: 71 percent, according to a February poll. He finds himself on the verge of national prominence, as a possible running mate for John McCain.
“I don’t have an interest in the vice presidency,” he told me on February 13, but he’s bound to make McCain’s short list anyway. Many Republicans believe that Crist’s last-minute endorsement allowed McCain to nip Mitt Romney in Florida, putting the Arizona senator on a glide path to the GOP nomination.
In some ways, Crist’s candidacy would make a lot of sense: He’d all but lock up Florida, a state McCain can’t afford to lose in November. He also has a strong record on crime, taxes, and spending. But is he the battle-tested conservative that so many in the Republican base believe McCain ought to pick?
The 51-year-old Crist is of Greek ancestry — the family name was Christodoulos before his father shortened it. He’s bronze-skinned, silver-haired, and wafer-thin. A Pennsylvania native, he grew up in Florida and left for Wake Forest, where he played on the football team’s practice squad for two years. Crist finished his degree at Florida State and attended the Cumberland School of Law in Alabama. He flunked the bar twice before passing it (as smirking rivals like to mention). Around this time, he married his college girlfriend. They divorced half a year later, and he’s been single ever since.
In the art of retail politics, Crist is a grand master. He’s warm and affable in person. He likes to listen as much as he likes to talk, and he’s been known to give out his cellphone number to constituents he’s just met. “He’s probably the most brilliant campaigner I’ve ever been around,” says congressman Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican. “He remembers names like nobody else.”
The governor also has a nose for feel-good publicity. A few weeks before he was sworn in, he read a story in the Miami Herald about Kevin Estinfil, a disabled twelve-year-old who needs special thermal blankets to stay alive because his body can’t regulate its own temperature. A state office had spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to deny a claim for the blankets, which would have cost $360 per year. Crist cut a personal check for that amount and visited the boy. When the head of the tight-fisted agency announced her resignation, it hardly seemed like a coincidence — and Crist came off as “the people’s governor,” as he likes to call himself.
Crist first eyed public office more than two decades ago. In 1986, he ran for the state senate and lost. Not long after, a newspaper published his letter to the editor urging Republicans to unite behind Connie Mack, a conservative who was running for the U.S. Senate. “We read the letter but had no idea who Charlie was,” says Mitch Bainwol, who was Mack’s campaign manager at the time. Bainwol tracked down Crist and persuaded him to join the cause. After Mack triumphed, Crist was his state director.
Yet he still wanted to win his own election. His next foray was more successful: He captured a state-senate seat in 1992 and was re-elected to a new term. Since then, he’s sought one statewide office after another. In 1998, he ran a kamikaze campaign against Democratic senator Bob Graham. Crist lost badly, but increased his name recognition among Republicans. Then came a string of victories — for state education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002, and, finally, governor in 2006. Conveniently, the state legislature recently repealed a resign-to-run law that would have required Crist to quit his job in Tallahassee to seek a federal office. Now he can legally serve as governor and as the Republican nominee for vice president at the same time.
Throughout his career, Crist has demonstrated a talent for spotting and exploiting niche issues. As a state senator, he proposed that prisoners work in shackled crews. Opponents mocked him as “Chain Gang Charlie.” Their name-calling backfired, however, as Crist embraced the term and even used it in campaign ads. Later, he criticized Florida Atlantic University for sponsoring a play that depicts Jesus as a gay man. As attorney general he blasted Medicaid for letting sex offenders acquire Viagra, and his complaints prompted a change in federal policy. In each case, he earned headlines and conservative approval.
Despite these gestures, many conservatives have harbored doubts about Crist. “He’s no Jeb Bush,” says one Republican congressman who isn’t from Florida. “There’s no way you can be as popular as he is and be doing anything hard.” Some of Crist’s biggest fans don’t belong to his party. Democratic state senator Dave Aronberg has called him “one of the best Democratic governors Florida has ever had,” according to the St. Petersburg Times. Last year, at a gala sponsored by the legislature’s black caucus, state representative Terry Fields exalted Crist with language that echoed a phrase often used to describe Bill Clinton: “Don’t you think he’s Florida’s first black governor?” The Associated Press reported that “the crowd erupted in applause.”
A main reason for this left-leaning group’s celebration of Crist was his support for what was one of its top legislative priorities: the restoration of voting rights for felons. During the recount controversy of 2000, many liberal civil-rights organizations argued that a law denying the vote to ex-cons was discriminatory, in that it disproportionately affected blacks (and perhaps even played a decisive role in George W. Bush’s defeat of Al Gore). Restoration of voting rights was possible for non-violent offenders by a special process of petition. Democrats, however, sought to make it more or less automatic, and Crist helped them meet their goal. “I believe in forgiveness and atonement,” he says. Polls suggest that most of the public opposed the reform. “I don’t know many people who would say that the problem with our democracy is that there aren’t enough ex-criminals voting,” says a major Florida conservative.
Gov. Charlie CristNewscom
More troubling may be Crist’s views on abortion. “I am pro-choice,” he said a decade ago. “I believe that a woman has the right to choose.” As a member of a key committee in the state senate, he cast the deciding vote against a bill that would have required a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. During the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2006, Crist’s main opponent, Tom Gallagher, tried to get to Crist’s right on social issues but suffered from his own credibility problems. Crist beat him, and then defeated Democratic congressman Jim Davis in the general election.
Today, Crist calls himself pro-life. “I changed my mind,” he says. “I think it’s important to protect the sanctity of life.” Unlike Mitt Romney, Crist has no story about how and why his beliefs changed. “It’s just a maturation of my views,” he says. Does he believe Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided? “No. I don’t think it should be overturned. I’m not running for the Supreme Court.” Can he think of a single new restriction he would place upon abortion in Florida? “No. I’m comfortable with the status quo. So are most Floridians.” He goes on to say that he has supported tax incentives for adoption.
“Social issues make him very uncomfortable,” notes one Florida Republican. During his campaign for governor, Crist signed a petition in support of a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage — a cause that the state GOP had backed financially. Since taking office, however, Crist has opposed further party donations to advance the initiative. “It’s a good idea and I’ll vote for it,” he says, “but it’s not a front-burner issue for me.” He has called himself a “live-and-let-live kind of guy,” and says that civil unions for gays are fine.
Another campaign promise involved gambling: “I oppose the expansion of gambling,” he said. As governor, however, he has presided over what the Miami Herald has called an “unmistakable march toward more ways to gamble at more places for more hours with more money.” Racetracks now have extra slot machines and longer hours, and ATMs are closer to gambling dens. Crist also would like the state to offer additional lotto games, ticket machines, and promotional billboards. “I don’t view this as an expansion,” he says. “I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder.”
He points out that additional income from gambling will help the state’s bottom line — and on fiscal matters, his overall record is good. In January, he successfully pushed an initiative that will cut property taxes. Moreover, he has kept the lid on state spending. Shortly after becoming governor, he used his line-item veto to slice $459 million from Tallahassee’s budget. Both the budget he went on to approve and the one he has proposed this year are roughly the same size as the final budget of Jeb Bush’s last term, about $70 billion. This is partly because state revenues have dropped. Given Florida’s continual population growth, it’s nevertheless an impressive accomplishment.
Yet storm clouds loom on the horizon, thanks to Crist’s other actions. “He socialized our state’s insurance market,” says Dennis Ross, a Republican state representative. “He’s doing everything he can to run insurance companies out of Florida.” One of the hottest political issues of 2006, when Crist was in the thick of his governor’s race, involved insurance premiums. They were shooting up because companies were paying out so much in the aftermath of those hurricanes. “Rates were going through the roof,” says the governor. “We experienced price gouging. I’m a consumer advocate. I fight for the little guy. Sometimes big business can be as bad as big government and become arrogant, sloth-like, and detrimental.”
To address the problem, Crist imposed de facto price controls that have turned the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, essentially a state agency, into Florida’s largest provider of homeowner’s insurance. Several other measures have also hobbled market forces. “This plan violates every principle of actuarial soundness,” says a prominent Florida Republican. The result is that taxpayers are now on the hook if a violent tempest slashes its way across the state in the next few years. “This is a huge gamble,” says Eli Lehrer of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank.
Crist’s reforms were enough to compel a response from Jeb Bush, who had kept quiet about his successor until last September. At a speech in Texas, Bush criticized states for “offering solutions that are as bad as the natural disasters themselves,” and observed that “my beloved state of Florida has taken steps along this path.” The former governor also lauded the efforts of state representatives Ross and Donald Brown, the only members of the legislature to oppose the plan. Crist was less appreciative: Both Ross and Brown were stripped of their committee chairmanships. “Should we have state-run mortgages? State-run auto-insurance policies? I don’t mean to sound ludicrous, but that’s the mentality we’re fighting,” says Ross. In February, when State Farm announced that it wouldn’t write any new homeowner’s insurance policies in Florida, Crist was almost gleeful: “Good riddance to anybody who is not treating the people of Florida right.”
Some global-warming enthusiasts have tried to connect the prevalence of hurricanes with human-induced climate change. Crist has gone along, making the link in his 2007 “state of the state” address. The governor has pushed for a series of caps on greenhouse gases. He wants a 22 percent reduction in auto emissions by 2012, for instance. As a result, he has become one of liberalism’s pet Republicans. Crist goes out of his way to discuss the environment with the likes of Sheryl Crow, whose hit songs include “My Favorite Mistake.”
He also sponsored a major conference on global warming in Miami last year. On its first day, environmental crusader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. gave a keynote address. He blasted Republicans who have “torn the ‘conserve’ out of ‘conservatism’” and praised Crist for his “leadership.” Kennedy’s speech — along with remarks by activists from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club — are viewable on Crist’s gubernatorial website. “Look at the geography and topography of our state. We’re a giant peninsula,” says Crist. “Rising sea levels would impact us. We have to address this problem.”
On March 11, Crist explained the source of his passion: “Do you know who first introduced me to the idea of climate change? It was John McCain.”
Conservatives are likely to want a little more balance on the GOP presidential ticket. If McCain decides to spurn them, he would be smart to buy some disaster insurance beforehand.