A strong appeal
Republicans back him. Democrats back him. But can Gov. Crist's populism help solve Florida's biggest crises?
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 8, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - He stood in a corner of the Old Capitol as dozens of Democrats showered him with applause.
"I'm a Republican, which you are probably aware of, but I'm a Floridian first," Gov. Charlie Crist told visiting civic leaders from Broward, a county that soundly rejected him in the election in November. "We understand that we need to work together to do what's right and we're trying to do that," he said. Scanning the crowd that had gathered for Broward Days in the Capitol, he singled out Democratic Rep. Jack Seiler as "a guy who's not ideological but just has a heart."
It was pure Crist: nonpartisan, inclusive, effusive with praise and acutely aware of his audience. The crowd ate it up.
As Crist approaches his 100th day in office Thursday, the self-styled "people's governor" is riding a sky-high approval rating of 73 percent, according to a recent poll. He has endeared himself to a wide cross section of Floridians with a combination of hopeful populism and center-left politics.
But storm clouds are building that could threaten those twin pillars of Crist's early success.
His cheery insistence that insurance premiums will drop, even as premium increases and policy cancellations arrive in mailboxes, is wearing thin with some homeowners. And his recent decision to nudge the Cabinet to create an automatic system for restoring some civil rights to felons may antagonize the conservative wing of his party.
Every day, Crist's office gets another stack of e-mails from frustrated constituents. They tell their stories about the financial burdens of life in Florida. They are waiting for insurance premiums to drop, for property tax relief.
Crist's reassuring words are not enough.
"When are we going to see relief?" wrote Teresa James of Lehigh Acres on March 9.
"I like the way you have been working," wrote Tim Suazo of Miami, "but I hoped (for) more from you."
The pressure is on Crist to deliver. But his tax relief proposals are going nowhere in the Legislature, and he appears willing to wait for lawmakers to come up with their own solution.
"He's going to look very bad if he doesn't do something this year," said Linda Hayward of Brooksville, who heads a Hernando County group demanding property tax relief.
On insurance, some say Crist has literally cast his fate to the wind. The rewrite of property insurance law that Crist signed has not yet produced the premium reductions that were promised, but it has substantially increased the state's financial exposure if a catastrophic hurricane strikes.
National experts predict a highly active storm season in 2007, at a time when the state's sales tax collections are in a slump.
A climate change
At times, Crist's way of governing seems indistinguishable from his campaign. He tells audiences "I'm an optimist" and "you're the boss." He has a disarming style and can deftly dodge questions.
Pressed on whether people should be allowed to bring guns to work, an issue that pits the right to bear arms against private property rights, Crist said: "It's a challenging issue. But that's why we have a Legislature."
Civility is Crist's overriding public trait.
He has almost single-handedly brought about a political climate change in Florida, by treating opponents as equals and refusing to criticize ideas he doesn't like.
"These are my Democratic buddies," Crist said at a ceremony the other day, standing with two of his top agency heads, Bob Butterworth and Walt McNeil. "I love 'em."
Crist ran for governor as a "Jeb Bush Republican," but he has not governed that way.
The new clemency policy he pushed through the Cabinet, which allows some convicted felons to automatically regain some civil rights, including the right to vote and hold a professional license, is only the latest in a string of moves that pleased left-of-center audiences.
He publicly high-fived teachers' union leader Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, at a ceremony marking passage of a teacher merit pay plan. The union is a bulwark of the Democratic Party and battled constantly with Bush.
Crist quietly refused to play the state song, Old Folks at Home, at his inauguration, because of what some consider racially offensive lyrics.
He has advocated a state policy to reduce the environmental threat of greenhouse gases.
The Florida Democratic Party, which blasted Crist as a waffler and flip-flopper on the campaign trail, has been only mildly critical of his performance.
Party chairwoman Karen Thurman praised Crist for reaching across the partisan divide to engage Democrats, but sees in him a tendency to emphasize sound bites over substance.
For example, her party faulted Crist for advocating a narrower amniotic stem cell research program than the broad embryonic research he advocated on the campaign trail.
"He just never pushes it far enough," Thurman said. "It's, 'Let's put these buzz words out there.' "
Citing the 2006 election results, Thurman said that even though Crist crushed Republican primary opponent Tom Gallagher, and even though Crist and the GOP spent an estimated $40-million on his campaign, he got only 52 percent of the vote in November.
"There's a message there," she said. "Florida is not a state that is going to be governed from the right."
Eventually, Thurman said, Crist will have to get tough with fellow Republicans in the Legislature if they don't pass the laws and programs he wants.
"Does he lead?" Thurman said. "Or does he just accept?"
Crist has his detractors outside of the Democratic Party, but for the most part they keep their criticism quiet.
Last month the Florida House unanimously approved Crist's "antimurder" bill.
But when a St. Petersburg Times editorial cited the law's high cost, Donna Arduin, a policy adviser to House Speaker Marco Rubio, sent colleagues an e-mail that said: "There is a first time for everything. ... I agree with the Times."
The most notable exception to all the silence is Attorney General Bill McCollum, who called it "a grave mistake" and "very liberal" for Crist to advocate automatic restoration of some civil rights to felons.
Republican Bob Milligan, a former comptroller who served with Crist in the Cabinet, said the governor's upbeat, it-will-all-work-out tone makes it all the more important that he deliver.
"He certainly has built up a tremendous expectation with the citizens," Milligan said. "There are so many lightning-rod issues out there, that he's got to work very hard to meet people's expectations."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.