Crist makes room for his team

Published January 11, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday severed ties with his predecessor, recalling hundreds of appointments Jeb Bush made in his last months, including high-profile picks for utility regulation and education.

"It's time for a fresh new start," Crist said. "I want to honor the will of the people."

Crist recalled all 283 names awaiting confirmation by the state Senate. The appointments run the gamut, from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to the Withlacoochee River Basin Board and the state Board of Auctioneers.

The move is hardly unprecedented. Most, if not all, new governors have changed things up. Bush withdrew 340 appointments when he took office in 1999, according to the Florida Senate. His predecessor, Democrat Lawton Chiles, pulled 117.

Such moves are driven by two main forces, said Ken Plante, a lobbyist and former Republican lawmaker: "You have a tremendous amount of people who were supportive of you in the campaign and want to be part of government, and you want to put you own brand on there."

Withdrawing all nominees avoids the appearance of playing favorites, and Crist indicated not all will be frozen out for good.

Some of his close associates are on the list, including Debbie Sembler, appointed by Bush to the University of South Florida board of trustees. Sembler and her husband, St. Petersburg developer Brent Sembler, co-chaired Crist's inaugural committee.

But asked if he expected most appointees would be replaced by new candidates, the governor replied simply, "I do."

That includes former state Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Wesley Chapel, whom Bush tapped to serve on the Public Service Commission. Surrounded by family and friends, Littlefield was sworn in Tuesday for a four-year term that pays $132,690 annually.

"I think he's a fine guy," Crist said of Littlefield, who gave up almost certain re-election to take the PSC job. "I just think I'm trying to find the most consumer-oriented people."

Crist said he nixed Littlefield, in part, because of his vote in support of a 2003 bill that loosened regulation of phone companies, leading to the largest rate increase in state history. Crist fought the bill as state attorney general.

Littlefield declined to respond to Crist's statements. "I would need to hear that from him to have a reaction," he said.

Crist also said he did not support the other PSC appointee sworn in Tuesday, South Florida businessman Isilio Arriaga, who was beginning his second term on the board.

The governor could make new appointments to the PSC as early as today; other selections will come in the weeks ahead.

Crist was less decisive about the two appointees to the Board of Education but said, "you'll see some new blood there."

Bush recently reappointed Phil Handy and T. Willard Fair, who were first seated to the seven-member board in 2003.

Since then, they have faithfully carried out Bush's education policies on everything from retention of third-graders who fail the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to merit pay for teachers.

Handy, a Winter Park businessman, is a close confidante of Bush and served as the education board's chairman until being replaced by Fair last month. Reached Wednesday evening, he read a statement that seemed to confirm his fate.

"I've had a wonderful, great, positive experience. ... I've been a part of a number of important reforms," he said.

Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, started the state's first charter school with Bush in 1996. "There is no greater person on this Earth than you," he told the outgoing governor at a board meeting last month. "I love you."

Removing one or both of them could fuel speculation Crist wants to replace Education Commissioner John Winn, widely viewed as a leading architect of Bush's test-heavy vision of education reform. Winn is hailed by some as brilliant, and others as arrogant.

Technically, the commissioner is appointed by the Board of Education, but that hasn't stopped stories about possible replacements, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Pasco County school superintendent Heather Fiorentino. And on his end, Crist has done nothing to stop the rumors from flying.

Asked in an e-mail from the St. Petersburg Times last week if he wanted to replace Winn, Crist responded, "Thanks for the questions," then avoided the question completely.