Both sides pandering on felon rights
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published October 21, 2006
For years, Democrats in Florida have fought for the automatic restoration of civil rights for felons.
They have failed because of Republican resistance in the Legislature and a lack of enthusiasm from Gov. Jeb Bush.
In Florida, convicts who do their time and walk out of prison are not truly free. They can't vote, serve on a jury or hold various professional licenses.
Florida is one of three states that still requires ex-felons to go through a cumbersome process known as clemency to regain their civil rights.
The clemency process has been streamlined somewhat in recent years, so that most ex-felons can win their rights back without waiting for months or years for a public hearing.
But as of July 1, there was a backlog of 5,600 ex-felons whose cases require formal review before action could be taken by the clemency board. A disproportionate number are African-American men.
Along comes Charlie Crist, the Republican nominee for governor, who says it's time for Florida to follow most other states and make restoration of civil rights automatic.
What should be cause for celebrating the end of a sorry chapter in Florida's civil rights history instead becomes grist for the attack machine mill.
Democrats, in full campaign mode, can't resist. Rather than welcome Crist's belated support, they call him a flip-flopper and a panderer.
"Charlie-come-late," said Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, in a conference call arranged by the Democratic Party. "A real opportunist," said Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, D-Miami.
Their reactions help illustrate why Democrats have such a hard time winning elections in Florida. Their first impulse is to make a partisan attack rather than solve the problem.
On an issue Democrats pursued by themselves for years, a Republican is now likely to get credit for a solution.
It's a valid question why Crist, after six years on the clemency board, didn't do more earlier to reform the clemency system. It's equally valid to ask why Democrats didn't fix it during the 100-plus years they ran the state.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times' editorial board last week, Crist said his "evolution" on the issue is partly a result of his experiences on the campaign trail.
"I ask everybody I see for their votes, but in so doing, an awful lot of people say 'I can't vote,' and it's because of that, I'm almost sure," he said. "I can't get the notion out of my mind that if somebody has paid their debt to society, either we recognize that they have or we don't."
Crist's "evolution" on civil rights can't come fast enough. While he's calling for reform, his own political party is shamefully exploiting the issue.
The Republican Party recently financed a mailing on behalf of Senate candidate Steve Oelrich of Gainesville that blasts Democrat Ed Jennings as soft on crime.
How so? Jennings "sponsored legislation to give felons the right to vote," the GOP flier states, ticking off a series of Jennings votes when he was in the House.
So while Crist is saying the time has come for automatic restoration of civil rights in Florida, his party sends out the exact opposite message.
It's obvious that Crist still has to convince some in his own party that helping ex-felons become full-fledged citizens is a good idea.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or 850 224-7263.