Crist backs off ban on same-sex marriage
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 14, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist does not want any more Republican Party money spent to promote a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Florida, and on Tuesday he dodged a question of whether people should be able to vote on it.
"I just think that their money can be better spent on other things that may be more pressing, like elections," Crist said. "The people care about issues like insurance premiums. They care about property taxes. They care about public safety."
By distancing himself from the same-sex marriage issue, Crist has again shown a preference for pragmatism over ideology and a lack of enthusiasm for wedge issues.
But he risks alienating social conservatives, whose votes will be highly coveted by an ever-growing field of Republican presidential candidates.
"He's certainly allowed to express his opinion," said John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and chairman of the effort to put a same-sex marriage ban in Florida's Constitution.
"I cannot imagine that he would reverse his position as a strong supporter of this effort. It's good policy for him, it's good politics, and it's a historical thing that's going to happen. It needs to happen."
As for Crist's opposition to party support for the amendment, Stemberger said: "I think he should re-evaluate his position."
Stemberger was a supporter last year of Crist's Republican primary opponent, Tom Gallagher, whose campaign was based primarily on appeals to social conservatives.
Crist trounced Gallagher, claiming 64 percent of the vote in the GOP primary.
Florida has a state law banning same-sex marriage, but supporters want it embedded in the Constitution.
Backers of what is called the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment are close to collecting the 611,000 signatures they need to get the proposal on the November 2008 presidential election ballot, subject to approval by the Florida Supreme Court.
The issue is considered vital to Republican efforts in mobilizing social conservatives. The campaign's spokesperson is Laura Gallagher, the wife of Tom Gallagher.
The Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage, a political group, received $300,000 last year from the Republican Party of Florida, more than half of the marriage group's reported total.
Jim Greer, Crist's handpicked choice to be chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said he has not yet decided whether to contribute any more party money to the effort.
Supporters already faced one new hurdle: a requirement that ballot initiatives in Florida must get approval of at least 60 percent of voters.
Now they face resistance from a popular new governor who has sought to cast himself as a non-ideological problem solver tackling issues such as insurance, taxes and crime.
"I'm convinced those are the kinds of issues that the people of Florida want us to focus on," Crist said, "and I think it would be appropriate for the party to do the same, and I believe they will."
Asked if people should have a chance to vote on the same-sex marriage issue, Crist said: "We only have so much time. And we have to prioritize what we put our energy into."
Asked if there's a "downside" to his party being identified as opposing gay marriage, Crist said: "I see an upside to fight for lower insurance premiums."
Crist is listed as an endorser of the amendment on the web site, www.florida4marriage.org. And while running for governor last year, he signed a petition in support of the same sex marriage ban.
But after Crist's overwhelming primary victory, social issues all but vanished from the campaign and gave way to issues Crist considers more important, such as insurance, taxes and public safety.
The Florida Democratic Party praised Crist's statements Tuesday.
"The gay marriage ban is nothing but a get-out-the-vote tool for Republicans, and we're glad the governor recognizes that it's time to drop the charade and focus on real issues affecting Floridians," spokesman Mark Bubriski said.
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or 850 224-7263.