The first official day of Charlie Crist’s campaign for governor made “The Real Housewives of Miami” look like child’s play.
Addressing supporters at a waterfront park in his hometown, the former governor repeatedly swiped at his successor, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, pausing at times to keep from being drowned out by a plane circling overhead towing a banner with a link to a web site mocking the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Crist.
Crist accused Scott of being a tea party politician who is rewarding cronies with lucrative contracts and is out of touch with middle-class Floridians. A political committee backing Scott unleashed a $500,000 television ad buy attacking Crist for being an opportunist who abandoned the state to further his own political career.
If Crist’s first day on the campaign trail is a harbinger of things to come, voters are in for a nasty year.
“The far-right wing seems to think it important to make much of my party affiliation. That is precisely what is wrong with politics today,” Crist, accompanied by his wife Carole and a crew of Democrats at Albert Whitted Park in St. Petersburg, told the crowd.
Crist accused Scott and “his gang” in Washington and in Florida of governing “from the fringes.”
“And anyone who doesn’t agree with them is an enemy or worse yet somehow not as patriotic. That is why Washington is so dysfunctional and why state government has lost its way here. When the people give you the honor of being the governor, you aren’t the governor of any one party. You’re the governor for all Floridians. No matter what they say, it is not a sin to reach across the aisle. It is your obligation to work together. So yeah, I’m running as a Democrat and I am proud to do it,” Crist said to cheers.
The television ad, paid for by the “Let’s Get to Work” political committee backing Scott, featured images of high-profile Democrats, including former Vice President Al Gore, bashing Crist, whom some Democrats blame for Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s victory in 2010. Crist ran as an independent to avoid a primary in what became a three-way race against Rubio and former Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek.
“It’s a little unusual to have somebody flip flop…and then flop flip,” Gore, quoted in the ad, said at the time.
Crist’s opening pitch on Monday veered somewhat from the typical campaign speech in which candidates generally do not mention their opponents by name.
In contrast, Crist repeatedly called out Scott on policies ranging from education to the environment and criticized Scott on a variety of issues, including $1.7 billion that Columbia/HCA, a health-care company Scott founded, paid to the federal government to settle charges of Medicare fraud. The payments came after Scott left the company.
Scott hasn’t officially filed his re-election paperwork yet, but his political committee has collected more than $13.5 million already this year and Scott pledged to spend more than $25 million “defining” Crist.
On Monday, Crist asked supporters for help in combating the $100 million price tag Scott’s campaign has reportedly put on keeping the governor’s office in GOP hands.
Scott is “trying to bully me by waving around his $100 million checkbook,” Crist said. “Now I trust you. And you can trust me. And I know you’re smart enough not to believe those ads…If we are tireless in our desire to make Florida a better place again, then Rick Scott can spend a billion dollars on dishonest ads and it won’t matter. You know why? Because we will have an army of angels every day on our side to support us through this,” Crist said.
Republicans responded to Crist’s event with a conference call featuring Crist’s one-time campaign “maestro” and former chief of staff George LeMieux. Crist appointed LeMieux to the U.S. Senate to take the place of retiring U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez in 2009.
“He’s extolling virtues …that literally three years ago he was condemning,” LeMieux told reporters Monday afternoon.
LeMieux and other Republicans blasted Crist, who at one time called himself a “Ronald Reagan Republican,” for abandoning the state when it was in a crisis during the great recession and unemployment skyrocketed from 3.5 percent to 11 percent.
But Crist frequently says “the Republican Party left me” by moving too far to the right and cites Florida GOP icon Gov. Jeb Bush’s claim that it would be difficult for Reagan to get elected today.
“Doing your own housecleaning, doing your own internal workings…is one thing,” LeMieux said. “Leaving the party because you want to run either for the U.S. Senate or…to be a Democrat to run for governor is completely different….Who is this person that’s running? What do they believe in? If elected what would they do? I think there’s no answer to those questions because he’s changed so much he’s unrecognizable.”
Crist, who appeared on “The Real Housewives of Miami” two years ago with his wife Carole, has surrounded himself with Obama staff, including new media consultant Jim Margolis, pollster John Anzalone and finance director Jessica Clark. His senior advisor is Steve Schale, a veteran Florida Democratic consultant who led Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008 and played a significant role last year.
Crist laid out a five-point campaign platform on Monday highlighting education, the environment, infrastructure like ports, lower taxes for middle-class Floridians and small businesses and expanding trade by creating a Florida trade czar “that will report directly to me.”
Crist, who earned the support of educators as governor by vetoing a bill that would have based teacher pay on student test scores that he claims would have done away with 20,000 teaching positions, blasted Scott for slashing education spending by $1.3 billion in his first year on the job and cutting another $300 million from higher education in his second year.
He also called Scott “a governor that cares so little about education that he didn’t even come to his own education summit but he did take time to go to the tea party convention the same week.” Scott, however, likely will tout his push to increase teacher pay this year, an effort that helped get $480 million in the state budget.
Crist pledged to restore cuts to Bright Futures scholarships and to create more aid for college students who major in science, technology, engineering or medicine “if they agree to stay in our beautiful Florida.”
Republican Dick Johnston, a former St. Petersburg College trustee, called Scott’s education policies a disaster.
“Scott hasn’t done anything right. Period. He knows nothing about governance,” Johnston, who is a neighbor of Crist’s at Bayshore Towers in St. Petersburg, said. “Look at the decisions he’s made about education. They’ve been terrible.”
Republican lobbyist David Rancourt, who once worked for Bush, is a Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother of Crist’s
“This isn’t politics. This is family,” Rancourt said. “I think he will be a fine governor. I’m not opposing anybody. I’m helping a friend.”
Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson, in town for a separate event, said Scott has helped Florida’s economy rebound while the state suffered a severe decline under Crist’s watch.
He called the Florida governor’s race a bellwether for the rest of the country.
“This race is about the future of America,” Wilson said.
Democrats, who helped President Obama win Florida twice, want to regain control of the governor’s mansion for the first time since Bush won in 1998. And, with an eye on future presidential elections, the GOP wants to keep the state red, Wilson said.
“This is much more than a race between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist,” Wilson said. “This is a microcosm of the country. This is going to be a referendum on growing the private sector and jobs or growing government.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida