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Columns

McCollum takes on Crist at his own risk

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 7, 2007


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Bill McCollum did what no politician has yet dared to do.

He took off the gloves and took on Gov. Charlie Crist.

The Republican state attorney general strongly criticized Crist for pushing automatic restoration of civil rights for non-violent felons and for making it easier for a larger class of violent offenders to regain their rights.

McCollum said so many felons commit new crimes after their release that granting them new rights is a dangerous idea. He said some criminals should never regain the right to vote or hold a business license.

"Some people should have this as a permanent lifetime ban because of the crimes they have committed," he argued Thursday in a Board of Clemency meeting. "Serving prison time and making restitution isn't enough."

Crist totally disagreed.

"We need to be able to find it in our hearts to forgive," Crist said. "Our creator does it."

Crist used the bully pulpit and powers of persuasion to bring two Cabinet members to his side, Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Charlie Bronson, who cast the critical third vote.

It's a safe bet that the changes would not have happened if Jim Davis had won the governor's race, because it's unlikely that Bronson would have sided with a Democrat as he did with Crist.

McCollum has said the clemency board should meet more often to sweep away its case backlog, and that more should be done to help felons return to society.

But when he proposed that the state compile data on future civil rights restoration cases, Crist and Sink voted no, killing the idea.

McCollum looked alone and isolated. But the weight of public opinion may be on his side, as well as the collective opposition of many in law enforcement.

A poll by Quinnipiac University in December said Floridians oppose automatic restoration of civil rights for felons, 55 percent to 38 percent, with Republicans nearly twice as likely as Democrats to oppose it.

For those wondering when Crist would take a stand that was not popular with the public, this may be it.

What Crist calls "simple, human justice," McCollum calls "a grave mistake." What Crist calls "fundamental fairness," McCollum calls "very liberal."

There it is again. The L-word.

As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2000, McCollum called Democrat Bill Nelson a liberal.

As a U.S. Senate candidate again in 2004, McCollum called Mel Martinez a liberal trial lawyer Crist supported Martinez.

As the civil rights debate intensified Thursday, McCollum morphed into his former self, the Congressman.

He wagged his finger at attorney Rob Wheeler, the clemency expert in Crist's office. He shouted "Point of order!" after catching Crist on a parliamentary mistake. He "yielded myself back my time," the way they talk in Washington.

When McCollum accidentally referred to Crist as "Mister" (Mr. Chairman, presumably), Crist shot him an icy glare and said: "It's ... Governor."

There's more at work here than a clash of philosophies.

By taking a hard-line stand on this one issue, McCollum may have just inherited the mantle of the anti-Crists, conservatives who think Crist has moved too far to the left too fast.

Some will call McCollum courageous. Others will say he's pandering to public fears.

Still others will say McCollum blundered by questioning the motives and judgment of Crist, the titular head of the Republican Party who's riding a 73-percent public approval rating.

McCollum tried to put a happy face on this deep and very public division.

"We're still friends, and we're going to continue to be," McCollum said. "I hope. I hope."

"Sure we are," Crist replied.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified April 7, 2007, 06:21:56]


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