Crist's No. 2 defends flag role

Jeff Kottkamp says the bill he sponsored was about preserving monuments, not flying the Confederate flag.

Published September 19, 2006

JACKSONVILLE -- In the race for governor, Republican Charlie Crist has criticized Democrat Jim Davis' belated apology for a 1990 vote as a state legislator to deny compensation to two wrongly convicted black men.

But Crist's new running mate, state Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, was forced to do some explaining of his own Monday in his first full day of campaign appearances as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

As a freshman House member in 2001, Kottkamp was one of dozens of lawmakers who co-sponsored a racially charged proposal to keep the Confederate flag flying at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

"It's a preservation of historical monuments," Kottkamp said, addresscing the issue for the first time. "I don't ever remember the flag being mentioned."

The 45-year-old trial lawyer added: "I think it was primarily to preserve historical monuments, like Confederate monuments and World War I monuments. I don't think there was anything to do with flags in that bill."

It was all about the flag. The bill HB 591 was filed by Rep. Bev Kilmer, a Quincy Republican, weeks after Gov. Jeb Bush discreetly ordered the stars and bars removed from the Capitol at a time when memories of a flag controversy in South Carolina were still vivid.

Outraged black lawmakers met with House Speaker Tom Feeney and demanded that the proposal be withdrawn to cool racial tensions. The bill sped through two House committees and then quietly disappeared.

The bill drew broad support with 40 co-sponsors, including seven Democrats, two of whom are African-Americans. A legislative bill tracking service lists then-Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa, now a state senator, as a supporter.

Other supporters included Rep. Allan Bense, the current House speaker; Rep. Marco Rubio, the incoming speaker; and then-Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, now a state senator.

The bill would have blocked governments from permanently removing or relocating any historical monument from public property, including historic flags. It applied to monuments that commemorated any war in which the United States had participated.

"There's lots of monuments," Kottkamp said. "It's preserving history. It's not taking a political position. It just preserves the history of the state."

Crist was incredulous that anyone would find the bill offensive.

"Why wouldn't we want to protect monuments in our state?" Crist said. "I mean, I don't see the big deal."

It was a very big deal for a few weeks in early 2001, with partisan emotions still running high after the disputed Florida presidential election.

As attorney general, Crist has stressed his support for a stronger civil rights law that Kottkamp sponsored in the House in 2003. The Marvin Davies act empowered Crist to fine a Perry hotel owner who refused to let "coloreds" swim in the pool, and the reopening of an investigation into a 1951 firebombing in Mims that killed civil rights leader Harry T. Moore and his wife.

Davis, who publicly apologized for a 1990 vote to reject a state claim sought by Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, said through a spokesman that Kottkamp owes voters a fuller explanation.

"Jim believes that Gov. Bush's handling of that issue was appropriate," said Davis' spokesman, Josh Earnest. "Rep. Kottkamp's effort to politicize it was not. I don't know why he did that. But maybe he can explain to the people of Florida."

As Crist and Kottkamp campaigned together for the first time Monday, they collected support from three Democratic mayors in South Florida, several African-American pastors in Orlando and Jake Godbold, a popular former Democratic mayor of Jacksonville.

The first sign of controversy over the flag legislation came in Fort Lauderdale. Crist'schief of staff, George LeMieux, interrupted a Miami TV reporter who was questioning Kottkamp about the bill

"She asked him the same question four times," LeMieux said later.

Times staff writer Alex Leary and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at 1-800-333-7505 or bousquet@sptimes.com.