Crist leaves little doubt Bush reign has ended

Kind words don't mask the fact that state policies are changing.

Published March 29, 2007

For a guy who used to constantly refer to himself as "a Jeb Bush Republican" on the campaign trail, Charlie Crist is doing a number on Bush's image.

"It's a new day," Florida's new governor has been fond of saying, begging the question: Was something wrong with the old day?

Call it the de-Jebification of Florida politics.

There was Crist's debut state of the state speech when he never mentioned Bush. And days after Crist took office, he pulled back 283 Bush nominations to various state boards and commissions. That's standard practice for a new governor, but this was the first time a newly elected Republican had done it to another Republican.

"Jeb overreached on those appointments. He's been King Jeb for so long he didn't know that anybody would challenge him," said former state GOP chairman Tom Slade. "I think basically Charlie's message was, 'Jeb, you don't run the place any more.' And I don't think that's bad politics."

Privately, some of Bush's close friends are fuming, though publicly most Republicans say it's only natural for a new governor to chart his own course.

"I think Gov. Bush is disappointed, but I also think he understands that this is politics," said former Republican state Senate President Tom Lee. "People quickly forget, and most people unfortunately don't look back and show appreciation as much as they look forward looking for opportunity."

Praise hasn't ended

Crist still lavishes praise on his popular two-term predecessor, when asked. But he has been more likely to mention former Democratic Govs. Bob Graham and Reubin Askew when talking about the advice he has sought on governing.

Press coverage of the new governor has chronicled a new atmosphere of cooperation in Tallahassee, rich in examples of bipartisan outreach and flexibility. Invariably it implies a refreshing change from Bush.

"Jeb Bush never - never! - would call me back," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said last week when Crist visited the congressional delegation in Washington. "I called Gov. Crist and he not only called me back, he left his cell number."

Bush, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has kept a low profile since leaving office. He last appeared publicly with Crist on March 9 at a dedication of the Scripps Research Institute's Florida campus, and he talked about what a great job Crist is doing as governor.

Crist does reciprocate, if asked. "Jeb Bush is an amazing man," Crist said, dismissing suggestions he has distanced himself. "... I think he was one of the best governors America ever had."

Crist, though, acknowledged the perception of a rift with a spoof video his office produced for the Capital Press Corps' annual satirical skits in Tallahassee earlier this month. Jokingly suggesting that Crist wanted nothing to do with the Bush administration, the clip showed former Bush chief of staff Mark Kaplan and communications director Alia Faraj trying to visit the new governor's office but not getting past the receptionist.

"I've heard some of those complaints, but it may be that Charlie Crist is just going out of his way to be different and put Jeb Bush behind him," Charlie Hilton, a Panama City businessman and close Bush ally, said of Crist. "They are very different. Charlie Crist is a populist, and Jeb Bush was a true believer who had some strong underlying beliefs about limited government and so forth."

Bush kept high ratings

Bush left office with 57 percent of Floridians saying he did a great or good job, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. The same pollster in February showed 69 percent of Floridians approved of Crist's performance to date.

Crist has charted a dramatically more moderate course than Bush, embracing Democratic priorities such as paper trails for voting machines, initiatives to combat global warming, and higher teacher pay.

He has not attacked Bush's top priority, high-stakes student testing and school vouchers, but most observers think he pushed out two of Bush's closest education advisers - former Education Commissioner John Winn and state Board of Education chairman Phil Handy.

In his state of the state speech last month, Crist also took a slap at the teacher bonus plan backed by Bush. Teacher pay will increase, he said. "And it will not be based on a test alone," he added to Democrats' applause.

Bush and Crist have never been especially close. Bush stayed neutral in last year's gubernatorial primary, but some of his closest advisers were thought by Crist aides to be quietly backing Tom Gallagher.

"Gov. Bush was very careful to mind his P's and Q's during that campaign, but I don't some other people were as careful," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who has advised Bush and Crist on campaigns and said Crist is merely establishing his own persona.

"I don't think Gov. Crist is filling Gov. Bush's shoes," said Stipanovich. "He has his own shoes, and he seems to have a closet full of them."

Some quiet changes

Some examples of Crist's departures from Bush have been barely noticed.

Crist's budget request to the Legislature eliminated one of Bush's final priorities: the creation of a statewide suicide prevention office to start programs aimed at lowering the suicide rate, especially among young people. Crist lopped out that $150,000, but added $222,000 for a graphics unit and videographer in the Governor's Office.

Crist said in Tampa on Monday that he thought the suicide program was still in the budget and would look into it.

Then there's the matter of taking credit. Soon after Crist took over from Bush, Standard & Poor's pegged the Florida Retirement System the leading state pension fund. Gov. Crist's office fired off a press release:

"Fiscally responsible public policy, solid investment management, and the leadership of the trustees - Gov. Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum - accounts for the excellent health of the Florida Retirement System."

Jeb who?

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Bill Adair and Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.